My Big Night Out With Thing
by Leslie What
I live in Chino, California in a housing tract of one-level Spanish-lite-style tract houses, meaning every house looks exactly the same, or is a mirror image of the same, except mine, which I painted the colors of a poor man’s rainbow, meaning I ran out of paint before getting to red. I inherited the house from my parents or I wouldn’t be here. I’d be living in a Paris flat, if my thirty-five-year old mutt could survive the quarantine. Instead, I live with the oldest dog in the world, stuck inside stucco, surrounded by the San Bernardino desert in bloom with hybrid cars and mountain bikes. Strangers avoid me. I’m both shy and a tad out-of-synch. Still wear the mullet of my college years. But what good is freedom of speech if you have to cut your hair just because it’s stopped being in style?
My dog, Thing, is a mixed-breed-Malamoodle, big head and wolf-green eyes, poodle snout and long gray chocolate hair. He sheds continuously, stinks from mange, and has been losing teeth and growing toenail fungus since turning thirty. On hot days (pretty much February through October) he pants and slobbers over everything. I purée his food and vacuum daily. Other than that, he’s a good companion and a liaison between me and the outside world.
We got invited to a neighborhood barbecue after the “Los Angeles Times” wrote about Thing and his “Dogfather.” (Long story. Don’t ask.) KTTV news interviewed me for the nightly news, and someone from the food bank asked if I’d bring Thing to pose for pictures beside some photogenic homeless, hand-picked for a fundraising calendar. Next thing you know, the kid next door stopped to talk to me for his social studies project.
“I’m Jared Thomas,” the kid said. “This won’t take long.”
“I got all day,” I said, probably not the best thing to say.
He was in his elevens, almost as tall as me. Jared held a clipboard in one hand while he fished a pencil from his pocket. The pencil had been sharpened until it was only an eraser humping the lead point. “We’re supposed to find someone who has actually used drugs to tell us why we shouldn’t. My mom said I should talk to you,” he said.
It might have been an insult, but I was glad to talk. Everyone used drugs when I was in high school, even the teachers. Life was different then. The only ones who believed the drug education films we watched in school were parents. Today, the only ones who believed those films were the children. I took it upon myself to straighten this kid out.
“That’s nice,” I said.
“What is your full name?” Jared asked.
“Ringo Mackey,” I said. “I was named after….”
“Whatever,” Jared said. “Mr. Mackey, were you ever tempted by drugs?” He was so sincere I wasn’t sure how to answer.
“Tempted, no,” I said, meaning I thought of temptation as something you only thought about doing.
“Oh, great” Jared said. “I’ll never find anyone in this neighborhood who took drugs.” He looked ready to molt.
“Kid,” I said. “I took Prius-loads of drugs. I just wasn’t tempted by them.”
“Awesome. What was it like?” he asked. “Did you go to jail? Do you have brain damage?”
“What are they teaching you in school?” I said, angry about a system that taught kids how to react instead of think. “You need to listen to my story.”
“I’ll just call my mom,” Jared said.
I showed him the phone and he spoke in a loud voice that let me know his mother knew he was there. He hung up, sat on the couch, and wrinkled up his nose as a stench wafted over from the bedroom.
“Thing,” I said, by way of explanation.
“Thing!” said Jared, and we heard the bark and scratch of recognition. “Maybe I can pet him later.”
“Maybe,” I said. “He doesn’t take much to excitement these days.”
“So, tell me about drugs,” Jared said.
“Drugs were recreation back then,” I said. “My roommate, Bon Juvi, was a drug dealer. He had it all: money, drugs, lots of girls; one in particular named Debi. He was the perfect roommate except for his stinky dog Thing.”
“I thought he only stunk once he got old,” said Jared.
“I was misquoted in the paper,” I said. “Happens a lot, so don’t you do it. Thing doesn’t know any tricks, but he’s always been damn good at what he does, and what he does is stink and cause trouble. Those days Thing dug holes, crawled under fences, ripped out flowers, chewed up patio furniture.”
“Guess he’s calmed down since then,” said Jared.
“Haven’t we all?” I said, meaning I didn’t get out much anymore, except for grocery shopping and the drive-through at In-N-Out. “Thing had plenty of enemies, me included. But the one he really had to look out for was my neighbor, Ike Ippolito. Ike was the college ROTC recruiter. He was out to get Thing, me, and Bon Juvi after we protested in front of his office. Ike looked like a boiled potato, on account of his bald head, and we used to call him Mr. Potato. The guy hated us so much he used to call the police if our stereo was left on past ten o’clock. Bon Juvi finally got tired of fighting Ike and split to a different neighborhood. Problem was, when he moved, he accidentally forgot Thing. I hated that dog. Thing had the worst monster breath, smelled like cat shit. It’s gotten better since his teeth fell out.”
“Gross,” said Jared. He scrunched up his face, and that made me want to tell him even more.
“Thing would wait by the couch for me to fall asleep, then he’d lick me on the lips until I woke up. Thing never walked, never ran, he always trotted, his little black toenails clip-clopping across the linoleum day and all night. Now those toenails are yellow, due to fungus.”
“Mr. Mackey, what does this have to do with drugs?”
“It’s all sound bites to you, isn’t it kid? This has everything to do with drugs and why they were important. Pay attention. I’m going to tell you about the night I turned into a dog.”
“You. Turned into a dog.” Jared said.
“It was great,” I said. “It was the high point of my life.” Poor kid was so brainwashed he didn’t believe me.
“So one night Bon Juvi’s girl Debi stopped by looking for Bon Juvi. I told her he’d split with no forwarding address and Debi said, Oh, he didn’t tell me. Then she came inside and hunkered down over the living-room couch and Thing came up and licked her legs and she was too upset to notice. I didn’t meant to stare, but God she was pretty: long legs, long hair, a long neck like a princess. She wasn’t in much of a hurry to leave, and after a while Debi asked, ‘Got any pot?’
“Bon Juvi had taken all the pot, but there was some blotter acid in the refrigerator.”
“What’s blotter acid?” Jared asked, bringing me out of my flashback.
“You know,” I said. “LSD.” I could tell he was shocked. “What are they teaching you?” I said. “There are good drugs and bad drugs. LSD is a good drug.”
Jared laughed. “LSD is a good drug,” he repeated. “Let me get that right so I don’t misquote you.”
“Thataboy,” I said. “Now back to my story. Debi said, ‘Wanna trip together?’ and I said, sure. I ran into the kitchen and brought back the blotter acid like a puppy bringing in the morning paper. I handed her a hit and put one in my mouth. We sucked the paper, swallowed it. I put on a Phish tape. In a while I sat next to Debi and in another while we were both tits-up and staring at the ceiling. I put my arm around her shoulder and slid my hand down until it cupped her breast. It was possible she couldn’t feel my hand; before too long, I couldn’t feel her breast either.”
Jared said, “Euwweue,” and I remembered that eleven year olds got embarrassed about breasts, and I was sorry and hoped he didn’t tell his mother. “Debi noticed when the Phish tape was over. I didn’t notice, but she was more perceptive.”
I took a deep breath before continuing. “All of a sudden I noticed how the ceiling morphed from little bumps into rainbow-colored animals. The weird thing about acid was how it made you feel like you shared collective consciousness with everyone who took acid at the same time you did. I’d see an elephant wearing pajamas, and Debi would see a flying porcupine, and we’d point them out to each other and we’d laugh. And Thing would howl at a squirrel outside the window and we’d howl at the squirrel, too, and it was like we were all one.”
“Ku ku ka chu,” Jared said.
“Whatever,” I said. “I was near-sighted even then, and I took off my glasses to rub my eyes because they started to feel dry. And it was funny, but without my glasses my hallucinations were out of focus.”
“I forget what a hallucination is,” said Jared.
“It’s something from your imagination you actually see.”
“Like a mirage,” said Jared.
“Exactly,” I said. “A mirage, only from acid. So, Debi stopped laughing. ‘I don’t feel good,’ she said. She was perspiring hard. She got sick to her stomach all over the couch, psychedelic, amazing barf like the new Phish Joy album cover. Thing trotted over and licked Debi’s face, only his breath stunk so bad she got sick again. ‘Help me,’ she said, before passing out.
“I heard music: the theme to the Lassie show, which was a show my parents made me watch because they’d had to watch it as kids. Then something weird happened: Thing’s ears stood up. He must have heard the Lassie song, too. Thing had become a part of our acid trip. He started to whine and look toward the door. He scratched my arm. ‘We have to go get help,’ he said, kind of an auditory hallucination, meaning his lips moved, but he didn’t actually talk. ‘Debi’s sick. She’s depending on you.’
“I said, ‘Let’s go, Thing,’ but I could hardly stand without falling over sideways. I crawled over to the door and reached up to open it with one of my paws. We trotted outside, Thing leading, me following in the stance of a Neanderthal. Thing took a hundred-foot lead.
“‘Wait up,’ I called. Luckily, Thing paused to take a leak on Ike Ippolito’s rosebush, so I caught up with him. The day before Thing had gotten out and mated with Ike’s barky little Chihuahua through the hole Thing dug under her cyclone fence. Ike blamed me, even though his bitch was in heat. Ike had threatened to sue. Well, now he heard the two of us messing up his yard because he came out on the porch and yelled, ‘It’s that damn Malamoodle, isn’t it? I’m calling the police.’ The Chihuahua stuck her flat-nosed snout through the fence, and yapped, ‘Yap, yap, yap,’ probably asking for child support.
“I thought, what a little tramp. She’s going to get Thing into trouble. I got down on all fours and trotted over, growled and snapped at her like any best friend would do. ‘Leave Thing alone,’ I said. ‘It’s over.’ She ran away with her breadstick-tail stuck between her legs, crying and carrying on like she’d been tortured. That was the moment I discovered I enjoyed frightening small animals. I smiled at Thing and he smiled back. We owned that neighborhood. I felt proud as a man turned into dog could be.
“Suddenly a police car pulled up, and a cop stepped out and walked up to Ike’s door. I got scared and crawled behind an oleander next to Thing and we both listened to the conversation.
“‘Yap, yap, yap,’ yapped the Chihuahua, but that policeman didn’t speak dog. ‘What’s the trouble?’ asked the cop. ‘The neighbor’s mutt is tearing up my garden,’ said Ike.”
“The policeman wrote everything down on his report. I heard the song of Lassie. ‘Shit, Thing,’ I whispered. ‘We forgot to get help for Debi.’ Thing sort of shrugged his shoulders and trotted to the middle of Ike’s front lawn to take a dump. That’s how dogs show people who’s the boss.
“‘There he is,’ screamed Ike. ‘Do something!’ ‘You’ve got to stop calling us about this dog,’ said the policeman. ‘We’ve more important work to do.’ The policeman left and Ike said he was going to get his shotgun and he slammed the door shut. I was so scared I forgot all about Debi all over again. Thing wasn’t fazed. He found me in the bushes and licked my face. His smell didn’t bother me at all. Before I knew it, I stuck out my tongue to lick his face. I didn’t go any further than that, meaning I didn’t sniff his ass, but it was at that moment when I realized I had transformed into a dog. I was no longer of the human species.”
“Hard to imagine,” said Jared.
“Thing trotted away and I followed him like an older kid brother. We reached the intersection. Thing remembered to look both ways for cars and we made it safely to the other side. By this time, I’d completely forgotten what we were doing. Thing wasn’t much help. He paused at every house to sniff bushes, bark at cats, or chase squirrels. He picked up a couple of beagles on the corner of Manzanita and Desert Rose. He whizzed on tires and fire hydrants. Pretty soon, I needed a dog bathroom myself. I unzipped my pants in front of a blue hibiscus. I’d never peed dog style before that…have you?”
“Uh, well, no,” said Jared.
“It’s fun. You hold your leg up and whiz over everything and then turn around and look at it.”
“I’ll try that sometime,” Jared said, and I knew he wasn’t just saying that to be polite.
“We stayed out all night, carrying on and terrorizing the neighborhood cats. In the morning we heard something: a high pitched whistle that made our ears turn inside out. It was a siren. We howled and ran toward the sound. Thing followed. I didn’t even notice where we were until I saw an ambulance in front of my house. Then I remembered Debi again, but I got distracted almost immediately and whizzed on the mailbox. I finished just as Debi was brought out the front door on a stretcher.
“‘Oh shit,’ I said. ‘Debi.’
“What had happened was this: Ike Ippolito had planned to shoot Thing or me with a shotgun. He stormed over to my house, went through the open door, and discovered Debi unconscious. While Thing and me were out carousing, Debi drank all the Southern Comfort and OD’d on alcohol. Ike, the human potato, ended up saving Debi’s life instead of shooting Thing. On the front porch one of the medics asked, ‘Any idea what she’s taken?’
“Ike said, ‘I know they smoke pot.’ I tried to tell the medic, blotter acid, but all I could say was ‘Woof, woof,’ and no one heard me.”
“She could have died,” interrupted Jared.
“Yeah,” I said. “I wish I’d remembered to get help, but nobody’s perfect. And you know, Ike wanted to kill Thing. Who’s to say Thing would still be alive today, if any part of that night had been different?”
“That’s true,” said Jared.
“The ambulance drove away and we went inside to get a drink from the toilet. My pants legs were worn through and my knees were raw and bleeding.”
Jared stopped writing. “You can stop,” he said, and frowned. “Just tell me what happened to Debi?” Jared asked.
“They pumped her stomach and she was fine,” I said. “But mad at me. Now her name is Debi Ippolito. They had four kids, and she works in housewares at Walmart.’”
“I’m never taking drugs,” Jared said, rolling up his eyes.
“What?” I asked. “Didn’t you hear a word I said? Acid opened up my mind. I think that’s why I understand computers.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Well they do drug tests now before they even let you get a job at In-N-Out.”
“That’s an invasion of civil liberties.” I was a little scared that I was rationalizing just a bit, trying to validate the lessons of my youth, not that I understood what those lessons were.
“Dude, do you even hear yourself? You turned into a dog,” Jared said. “Drugs are dangerous. Didn’t you ever hear of crack?”
He had a point. But I had one, too. “You have a choice,” I said and we heard Thing trot from the bedroom to the bathroom and I remembered I’d forgotten to put down the toilet seat. Slurp, slurp, slurp; he sure could pack in a lot of water, though he couldn’t hold it that good, any longer. He clip-clopped back across the floor and his tags jingled as he jumped up on the bed. He started coughing something awful. Poor guy. Sure is hard watching your best friends grow old.
“Is he okay?” Jared asked.
“Yeah,” I said. It was time for Thing’s medicine, but I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to Jared yet.
“You got to understand that when I did drugs they weren’t all bad,” I said. “I had that amazing night out with Thing because of acid. That night changed everything. It changed my life. So write this down on your clipboard. Tell your friends to get all the information, consider everything before making up their minds.”
I heard Thing retch, knew I’d have to dry-clean the bedspread again. Had my life gone a different way, I might have slept with Debi at my side instead of Thing. But I loved Thing, and only God knew if I would have lasted this long with Debi.
About the Author
Leslie What lives in a tri-story house, where everything she needs lives on another level. She runs up or down the stairs to get the door, answer the phone, look for the checkbook, use the bathroom, placate the dog. She’s trying to finish a novel, but it seems also to exist on another level. Her work has won a Nebula Award and been an Oregon Book Award finalist. She is the fiction editor of the new journal Phantom Drift: New Fabulism.
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