Ray heard voices when he meditated. They sounded like muffled snippets of conversation coming from another room. Not much more than gibberish, really, but twice he’d heard complete sentences, soft and intimate, spoken in the space between his thoughts and they seemed meant for him and him alone.
The first was: “You’re going to die soon.”
His eyes snapped open when he heard that, and he had to question the point of meditating if he was going to hear this sort of crap news. So he gave it up and went about convincing himself that what he’d heard was nonsense, and when he’d successfully convinced himself of that, he started meditating again.
He was considering moving, maybe because he still thought he might die soon and before he did he wanted to live someplace more exciting than his house in the suburbs. He’d spend evenings scanning Google maps, looking at street views of cities, from Louisville, Kentucky, to Bozeman, Montana, but there were so many places and no way he could make up his mind. For a while he thought Sheridan, Wyoming was it, but then he found out it was the second most windy city in the country. Brrr, he thought, that would make for tough winters.
Then one evening while meditating before bed, the same voice that had told him he was going to die soon said in his head, “You don’t need to move.”
He accepted this with relief. Selling his house and packing up his belongings would’ve been a monster of a task, but it unnerved him that he was so willing to believe the voice when it said something good, but not when it said something bad. If he believed one he had to believe the other, no matter how much he wanted to cherry pick the good stuff. Then with a wry smile he thought maybe he didn’t need to move because he was going to die soon.
He started meditating more and hoped something else would come through to relieve his anxiety, like the voice might say, “Oops, our mistake, that crap about you dying was meant for the dick down the street.” But his meditations became muddied and he could rarely calm his mind for more than a few seconds at a time. His thoughts would run on incessantly about minutia, the leaky kitchen faucet in need of new rubber washers, and missed opportunities he wished he could redo, and on and on and never something that made him smile or happy. Again he questioned the point of meditating. It was as if his messages had come through and now he was blocked and supposed to sit there, not move, and wait to die.
His routine was to meditate before bed, which led his thoughts to get going so much so that afterward he’d reach over to the nightstand, turn on the clock radio and listen to talk radio to distract himself from his thoughts. The irony of having to listen to someone else’s thoughts to silence his own hadn’t slipped past him, especially since he found most talk radio, with its relentless commercial breaks selling gold bug paranoia and home loans, as annoying as his own thoughts, but it at least gave him a reprieve from his own long enough for him to fall asleep.
He only truly felt free in his dreams. He dreamt every night, oftentimes several distinct dreams in the same night. When he woke in the morning, he’d get a brief moment of mental peace as he experienced the dreams again through their evanescent residue before the string of his thoughts began their march across his frontal lobe like one of those endless military parades the Soviets used to be famous for, jack-booted leaky faucets and ancient resentments parading their chest full of regrets.
Keeping his mind occupied was hard work. He read books, everything from new-age self help to cowboy fiction, devoured news off the internet, and did his share of binging on Netflix. He had it down to where he was only vulnerable to his own negative thinking twice a day, while meditating before bed, and showering in the morning. Otherwise, his mind was occupied, mostly.
This morning as he waited for his oatmeal to cook, he shooed the neighbor’s cat out of the backyard before it could kill another sparrow feeding at the bird feeder he hung in the willow tree. He didn’t like that cat because it made him feel complicit in its killings because he was the one who filled the feeder with sunflower seeds and thus lured the sparrows in for the cat.
He ate his oatmeal as he read the news online, then showered, remaining aware of his thoughts so he could preempt any self-defeating trips down memory lane. He didn’t want to start the day out with a memory of a long past event he regretted, but as he shampooed his hair, a story in the news about a cruise ship plagued with e. coli reminded him of a solo trip he took across Europe in his late teens. During the trip, he slept overnight on a ferry from Brindisi, Italy to Corfu, Greece, and that lead to a memory of when he walked along the beach from one town to the next.
While between the two towns, with no one about for miles and no friends or family even knowing where he was other than in Europe, he stopped to stare at the Mediterranean and suddenly felt very vulnerable and alone, but also strangely liberated in an existential sort of way. If a wave swept him from the beach out to sea, for all anyone would know he might as well have been abducted by extraterrestrials, or taken prisoner by little green lizard men and kept captive in one of the coastal caves. Unless his body washed up, then people would assume he committed suicide, which he found depressing since he’d hate to leave life setting that sort of example since he never considered taking his own life a serious option.
Ugh, he thought, this was just the sort of crappy memories he wanted to avoid in the shower. Why always in the shower? Something about the water must make it easy to drift down memory lane, he thought, and how the frack did his thoughts get to suicide? And then he remembered the news story about the sick cruise ship.
“Forget it,” he said to himself, annoyed at the rabbit holes his mind went down.
He finished rinsing shampoo from his hair, and when he reached for the oversized bottle of conditioner he kept on the shower floor because it was too big for the shower caddy, he spotted the tiny slug slithering its way along the shower wall, no bigger than a lima bean. This was nothing new, he’d seen small slugs in his shower before and theorized they came up from the drain at night and returned once it got light, but occasionally some were slow to get back down the drain. Live and let live, he thought and kept showering, mindful to block the hot spray from hitting the slug directly.
When he finished with his hair, he spotted the second slug up by the shower caddy. And then he heard a voice in his head as he had when meditating, nice and clear as before but with a very different inflection than the one that gave him the news about his impending death.
“You’re looking good. You’ve lost weight since I last saw you. Doesn’t he look good, Duke?”
And then a second voice in his head said, “I’d say, look at that flat stomach. I bet he does a hundred crunches a day.”
“We don’t call him Stud for nothing,” the first voice said.
He looked at the slug by the shampoo bottle and swore its tiny tentacles were waiving at him. His heart raced as he realized the slugs were talking to him. He felt light headed, like he was about to pass out, and steadied himself with a hand against the wall. He was going crazy, schizophrenia or something, or if he was lucky he had only inhaled some hallucinogenic mold from the shower curtain. God, that thing was filthy. He should really throw it out.
“Relax, big fella, we’ll be out of your space soon enough. Winter mornings are still dark when you get up and snap on that bathroom light, and we get caught out, otherwise we’d be on our way back down the drain.”
Hallucinogenic mold, he told himself, and soap scum, that must be pretty toxic too.
The slug by the shower caddy slithered against his pinky finger. It tingled, creating a similar sensation as a friendly pat on his back. “You have a good day, and by the way, thanks for blocking the shower spray. It’s the temperature more than the wetness that’s bothersome. Come on, Duke, let’s hit the drain.”
“Yeah, thanks for that,” said the other slug as they began their slow slither down the shower wall to the drain.
Ray snapped off the water, pushed the curtain aside and stepped out. He slipped into his robe, tied it tight, then quickly detached the curtain from its rings, carried it outside and stuffed it in the garbage can. No more hallucinogenic mold.
Back in the bathroom, he scrubbed his hands of any potential residue and went about convincing himself mold and soap scum really was the source of his delusions. It wasn’t like craziness ran in his family, at least not that kind of craziness, just the normal kind of crazies people self-medicated with their placebo of choice.
He poked his head in the shower and asked softly, “You guys still here?”
But all was quiet and there were no slugs to be seen. They moved faster than he realized, he thought and went about finishing his morning routine.
He hadn’t heard anything in the shower, he told himself, it was dream residue left over from sleep. Gibberish, like with meditating, just nonsensical tricks of the mind. And stress. He believed stress was the evil of the modern age–a meme he’d picked up from somewhere, probably television–and he could blame pretty much anything on stress. From pimples to forgetfulness, so why not the occasional voice in the head?
* * *
Ray was a dog trainer who specialized in house calls for leash aggressive dogs. He empathized with the dogs because he knew their aggressive behavior stemmed from fear, and fear was easily taught to a dog by its owner without the owner even being aware they were teaching it, especially when they used any number of pain inducing collars. There was the prong collar, also referred to as the “pinch,” as if all the dog felt when the owner jerked on the leash and those metal prongs around his neck stabbed into its skin was a little pinch. At least the choke collar was named honestly.
The one Ray disliked most was the electronic collar, or e-collar, a euphemistic name for a remote controlled shock collar. With the remote control, the owner could induce pain at varying levels, from a little pain to a lot of pain, and it had buttons that sent out a quick jolt of pain, or a continuous stream of pain until the owner released the button. Giving owners this much power to administer pain to their pets without any reference to how it felt seemed crazy to Ray. At least with the pinch or choke collar they could see the collar in action and had a physical connection to it. But with the shock collar, he’d seen people at dog parks use the remotes like they were trying to surf the channels on their dog and he almost expected them to turn to their friend and say, “What channel is the perfect dog on again?”
He knocked on the front door of his first appointment of the day, a couple in their early 30s, Anne and Jim. He’d spoken to Anne on the phone about their dog, Dixie, a yellow Labrador that had been barking a lot.
A woman cracked open the door, wide enough for her face but not wide enough for the Lab trying to push past her.
“Dixie, behave,” she said.
“I’m Ray, you must be Anne.” Ray smiled, always happy to see an enthusiastic dog. “It’s okay, just let her do what she normally does.”
Dixie pushed forward and tried to sniff Ray’s crotch, but he redirected her wet snout away from his groin with a treat.
“Come on in,” Anne said as she opened the door fully now that Dixie had escaped. “Where would you like to do this?”
“The kitchen is always good,” Ray said, leading Dixie back inside the house with another treat.
“The kitchen is awesome, best room in the house.”
Ray followed Anne, and when they sat down at the kitchen table, he said, “It is nice.”
Anne glanced around the room. “Thank you, we recently had it redone.”
She got up to wipe a dog nose smudge off the fridge door.
“Bigger fridge, holds even more food, if you can imagine that. Bigger oven, cooks the biggest bird I’ve ever seen. Jim’s punishment for last summer’s zipper follies.”
Ray looked at the refrigerator and oven with their matching stainless steel fronts. “Nice,” he said, but was confused by Anne’s over-sharing. Over the phone, she had struck him as one to play things close to her chest and keep things to herself.
“My partner, Jim, will be here soon. He’s running late.”
“Late my furry butt. He’s cheating with another dog.”
“Excuse me?” Ray said.
“He had some errands to take care of this morning, but he just called to say he was on his way. To be up front about it, Dixie is our furbaby. She’s a sort of trial run before we start a family. Maybe I’m overly cautious, but I wanted to make sure we could handle caring for a dog before we got married and had a child.”
“I understand,” Ray said. Dogs as surrogate children weren’t new to him. Love came in all shapes and sizes, even slugs.
“I think Jim has a second family, with a cat, and from the smell of him, maybe a hamster or two.” Ray heard Anne’s voice, but her lips hadn’t moved. She was simply smiling at him. Maybe she was a ventriloquist.
“We were doing pretty well with Dixie until this barking thing started,” Anne said, her lips moving this time as she spoke.
Dixie nose bumped his jacket pocket where he kept the dog treats. “Those are tasty biscuits. Give me another.”
Oh no, it was the hallucinogenic mold again, Ray thought as he reached into his pocket and gave Dixie a treat. She gobbled it whole in an instant.
“So much better than the pressed sawdust Milk-Bones they stock around here.”
“But how could you even taste it? You ate it so fast,” Ray said, holding it together, but his skin tingled as he broke out in a sweat.
Anne smiled. “Dixie is an emotional eater.”
“Typical Lab,” Ray mumbled.
Dixie cocked her head to the side at Ray. “Who needs to chew when the pieces are so small? What is it about you two-leggers that make you so stingy with my food portions? Anne serves my dinner in a measuring cup, always two cups of kibble, never more, but not her own. You should see her and Jim with the Hamburger Helper. Boy, do they ladle it high on their plates.”
Ray stared at the dog, not realizing his mouth was hanging open. First it was slugs, now it was a Labrador.
“Are you okay?” Anne asked.
Anne and Dixie sounded unnervingly alike. It was only by the content of their speech that Ray could tell them apart. He believed people looked like their dogs, but he’d never considered whether they sounded like them too.
“Yes, I’m fine,” he said. “I missed my coffee this morning so my brain is running a little slow.”
“Well, you’re in luck.” It was Anne, her lips moved. “I just brewed a pot. Do you take cream and sugar?”
“Another biscuit, please.” It was Dixie, he felt the nose bump.
Ray complied, then said, struggling to keep his composure, “So Anne, why don’t you tell me again what Dixie is doing that you want to work on.”
“Well, she barks at other dogs on our walks.”
“That’s not true. I only bark at the dog that lives in the house at the end of the block. That home wrecker dog is trying to steal Jim and break up our family.”
Ray accepted the offered coffee from Anne and took a sip, wondering if maybe he should go home and lay down.
Dixie’s tail started to wag. “Jim’s home.”
A moment later, they heard the garage door opening, then Jim walked into the kitchen.
“Hi, honey,” Anne said. “This is Ray, the dog trainer I told you about who is going to help us with Dixie’s barking.”
Ray stood and shook Jim’s offered hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Dixie pushed in and greeted Jim by nosing his crotch. He pushed her head away, visibly annoyed at the wet spot on his chinos, and said, “Maybe we could teach her not to do that.”
“He just had sex.”
Ray glanced at Anne, but she was sipping her coffee.
“And it was with someone other than Anne. Probably the woman who lives with the home wrecker dog at the end of the block.”
Too much information, Ray thought and sat back down. “So tell me about the neighbor dog at the end of the block.”
“How’d you know about her?” Anne asked.
Ray reached for his coffee. “You must’ve mentioned her on the phone.”
“Sniff Jim’s pant leg and you’ll know all about her. She sheds worse than a cat. If she weren’t the same shade of yellow as me her game would be up. I tell you, she’s trying to steal my family. How low is that? Especially when she already has one of her own. Some dogs just can’t ever get enough. It’s very upsetting. Give me another biscuit, please.”
Again Ray complied, becoming equally sorry for the dog as distraught by hallucinating her voice.
Dixie swallowed it whole and said, “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you understood what I was saying. But two-leggers don’t understand dog speak, only people blather. People talk and talk and talk, they even talk about talking.”
Ray smiled nervously at the dog.
“Huh?” She cocked her head to the opposite side as before. “You do understand me, don’t you?”
Anne’s partner, Jim, cleared his throat. “Well, the dog down the street is a yellow Lab like Dixie. I can’t say I know it’s name but it’s friendly enough. It doesn’t bark at us.”
“He’s lying and nervous. His heart rate just went up and I smell the scent of stress in his sweat. I love Jim, but how can I relax if my home is under threat because he can’t keep it in his chinos? You’d think he was the neighborhood Tomcat. He hangs out over there and leaves himself vulnerable to that dog making in roads on his affection. What if he starts to love her more than me?”
It was Ray’s turn to clear his throat. “And how are things at home? Between the two of you?” Crap, he thought, what was he doing? He wasn’t a couples counselor, he was a dog trainer.
Jim’s face turned a little redder than it was. “I don’t see how that is relevant, or any of your business.”
“I know, it’s not, but dogs are very sensitive. They pick up on things that can lead them to act strangely. It’s referred to as mirroring. You’ve heard of cats pooping in their owner’s suitcases when they pull the bags out of storage and pack for a trip?”
Dixie nose bumped Ray’s thigh. “That’s a good one. I should try that. Those cats are devious.”
Anne crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Things are fine,” she said stiffly.
“Anne is just saying that. She’s an emotional eater, just like me. She’s put on a good twenty-five pounds since Jim paid to redo the kitchen. He said it was a present, but we all know it was his punishment for Zippergate with his secretary.”
Ray looked at Dixie, thinking he could claim he needed a lesson handout out from his car and simply get in and drive away and maybe the voices would be gone by tomorrow.
But Dixie continued, “Jim likes skinny, the skinnier the better. Anne used to be skinny. The home wrecker’s woman is super skinny. Maybe if Anne gets skinny again Jim will keep it in his pants when he’s away and only bring it out for her.”
“Unlikely,” Ray said under his breath to Dixie, but Jim took it to mean that Ray meant it was unlikely that things were fine between him and Anne.
If Jim had had hackles like a dog, they’d be up. “Excuse me? What did you just say?” he said, squinting angrily at Ray.
Dixie started laughing excitedly as she spun in circles. “I knew it, you do understand me. This is wonderful. There’s so much I need to tell them.”
“Stop barking, Dixie,” Jim said with a smack on her rear.
“Ouch, can’t a dog express a little joy?”
Ray stood to leave. “I don’t think I can help you.”
Anne looked up at him. “But over the phone you said this would be simple, that you’ve solved similar problems in the past.”
“Yes, I know, but this is different.”
“Well, don’t expect us to pay you,” Jim said. “What a waste of time. And after all that rushing this morning to get here.”
“We know what he was he was really rushing,” Dixie said.
“I’ll leave now,” Ray said.
Jim pushed back his chair. “That’s the best idea you’ve had.”
Dixie jumped up on Ray. “Don’t leave. You have to tell her. Be my voice, please.”
Ray gently lifted Dixie’s paws off of him and put them back on the floor.
“I didn’t mean any disrespect,” Dixie said. “But if you don’t tell her, it’ll just go on and on and get even worse. Anne will keep overeating and getting fatter and Jim will chase more and more skinny. He’ll be full of guilt for cheating and take it out on her, and she’ll hate him for cheating and herself for staying with him. If they don’t work it out now, it’ll be a life of misery.”
He looked down at the dog’s big brown eyes pleading up at him, knowing what he chose to do next would affect the rest of his life. An epiphany presented him with a choice: listen to the voices and be awake, or stay silent and go back to sleep.
Ray scratched the back of the dog’s neck and told her, “Okay, Dixie, I’ll do as you ask.” He turned to Anne. “You’re dog isn’t the problem. Dixie only barks at the Labrador at the end of the block because Jim has a thing for skinny women. You’ve gained weight, so he’s having sex with the skinny lady who owns the Lab, the one Dixie barks at.”
Anne’s jaw dropped as she looked across the table at Jim. “I knew it. I knew you were tomcatting around again.”
Glaring at Ray, Jim stood up and threw his hand in the direction of the front door. “Get the hell out of my house.”
Anne stood up too. “Not until you pay him,” she said. “And if you don’t want to find yourself sleeping in a motel tonight, you’ll give him a big tip.”
Dixie winked at Ray at the mention of a tip. “Yeah, a real big tip, something he can sink his teeth in, not some tiny biscuit.”
* * *
When Ray got home, he looked out the patio door at the bird feeder to see if it needed filling. Crouched motionless under a rhododendron bush below the feeder, the neighbor’s cat had returned to hunt the sparrows.
“You’re going to die soon,” the cat said. “You don’t need to move.”
Ray stepped outside. He was going to have a word with that cat about its senseless killing.