New Tricks

Note:  This story is one of an occasional series of humorous stories I’ve written for a friend who suffers from depression.  For more selections in that series, check out the “Strange Happenings At Ridgeline Drive” section of this site.

 

Jack Jones woke up with the hangover of the century.  It was all downhill from there.

He stumbled out of bed and into the wall, then fell backward onto the bed.  “So that’s what they mean,” he reflected blearily, and a bit painfully, “by getting up on the wrong side of the bed.”  The words, such as they were, came out in a slurring rasp, which suited him fine anyway, as he hadn’t intended to speak aloud at all.  He made up for it all by climbing to his feet again, and immediately tripping over the sheet to sprawl on his face.

“You’re going to hurt yourself,” the dog said from the floor, and resumed licking itself.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Jack said, waving a less-than-coordinated arm haphazardly in the air.  He detached himself from the sheet and made it upright, forgetting at once the half-formed thought that told him he hadn’t brought anyone home with him with whom  to be speaking.  He staggered to the bathroom instead, and made a brief and unproductive attempt at drowning himself in the sink, thinking it would at least end the headache; when that didn’t work, he settled for a splash of mouthwash and a quick hair brushing.

In the kitchen, he dropped a slice of bread into the coffeepot and turned it on, then caught himself about to pour water into the toaster, and pulled the bread back out.  “You want to be careful about that,” the dog said, wagging his tail.  “And by the way, how about some bacon?”

“No, no bacon today, I can’t stomach it,” Jack said, resting his head in his hands on the countertop.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” the dog said.  “I was looking forward to it.”

With the toast and coffee inside him (and more than one slice inside the dog, who looked quite satisfied with himself despite the criminal dearth of bacon), Jack wandered—his navigation really was improving now—wandered back to the bedroom and stuffed himself into some fresh clothes.  He fumbled for his shoes and his wallet, and found his keys hanging from the lampshade, but otherwise made a good show of it.  Seeing that he was in need of some things—not least of all, another six-pack, to take the edge off—he made his way to the back door, nodding to the dog as he went.  “Sorry about the bacon,” he said, and opened the door.

“Don’t mention it,” said the dog, “we’re quite alright.”  Then the door closed.

It was nearly a full five-count before the door crashed open again.  “Do you mean,” Jack said, looking for all the world as though his headache was gone, “that you’ve been TALKING to me?”

The dog, whose name was Buster, dipped his head in a gesture very much like a shrug.  “You seemed to be in a talking mood,” he said.  “It seemed like the thing to do.

“That,” said Jack, “is what I thought.”  Then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he hit the floor.

***

“I, I don’t understand,” Jack said for the fifth time, holding a washcloth full of ice against the lump on his forehead, “I just don’t.  How did this happen?  I mean, why haven’t you been talking all this time, if you knew how?”

“Why haven’t you been listening?”  Buster countered.

“Well, because it’s not really the sort of thing a man does—hey!” he said, catching himself.  “No need to be rude!”

“Pardon,” Buster said.

“Quite alright.  But, but how?  You never did answer my question.”

“Largely because you haven’t given me time to answer,” the dog said.  “You haven’t stopped talking since you woke up.  Really, if I spoke a little more, and you spoke a little less, we might get somewhere.”

“Then, speak!”

“ARF!”  The dog grinned at the utterly dumbfounded look on Jack’s face.  “A little canine humor,” he said.  “Speak?  It’s what you say when you want us to bark?”

“Well, I know that,” Jack said, a little irritated.  “I just didn’t expect…well…well, you still haven’t answered my question!”

“Yes.  That would be because I can’t.”

“But you just said it was because—“

“LARGELY because,” Buster said.  “The smaller reason is because I can’t.”

“Well, why-ever not?!”

“Because I don’t know how it happened,” the dog said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.  “Something in the air?  In the water?  Cosmic radiation?”

Jack grew indignant.  “What does a dog know about cosmic radiation?”

“What do YOU know about cosmic radiation?” the dog said.  Jack opened his mouth to argue, then shut it again, and became red in the face.  “Look, for all I know, it may have been something in your drink last night.  Judging from your state of inebriation when you crawled in through the window—yes, the window, didn’t you wonder how your keys got snagged on the lampshade?—you had quite a bit to drink.”

“Oh, very well, then,” Jack muttered.  Then, a suspicious look stole over his face, and he narrowed his eyes at the dog.  “Say…how do I know I’m not dreaming all this?”

“Oh, please,” the dog said.  “The very fact that I’m here should tell you otherwise.”

“And why is that?”

“Because it’s more of a nightmare than a dream to me, and I won’t stand for that,” the dog said.

Jack bolted to his feet and slammed his hand down on the table.  “Nightmare!  What’s so bad about it here, then?”

“We don’t have the time for that talk.  I have a life expectancy of only twelve years.”

“You’re only two!  I brought you home from the shelter as a pup!”

“Then DEFINITELY not enough time.”

Jack made a supreme effort, and sat back down.  “Are you trying to tell me,” he said, enunciating carefully, “that ten years is not enough time for you to tell me all the things you dislike about living here?”

“I was,” Buster remarked.

“But…?”

“But then I realized the liver cancer was going to get you in nine.  I can smell those things, you know.  You should probably drink a little less, by the way.”

Jack began to sputter.  “I never—!”

“You mean you never AGAIN, if you’re smart,” the dog said.  “But it doesn’t matter, anyway.”

“Why not?!”

“Because you’ll be dead long before that from testicular cancer.  I give you five years at most.”

He drew in a deep breath, and looked at the dog.  “You’re lying.  You can’t really smell those…horrible things.”

“You’re right,” the dog said.  Jack gave triumphant smile.  “I know it by magiiiiiic,” Buster said, drawing out the word, and Jack’s smile dropped into a scowl.

“There’s no such thing as magic,” he said.

“Says the man talking to a dog,” Buster retorted.  “Perhaps it was schizophrenia, not cancer?  I hear that can shorten the life expectancy, too.”

“I’ll shorten YOUR life expectancy!” Jack howled.

“You haven’t the stones for it!” the dog countered.  “Well, unless you count the ones in your kidneys.  Honestly, you must give up the bottle.”

“Stop insulting my health!!”

“Certainly!  Shall we switch over to your love life now, or shall we insult your career prospects first?”

***

“I’m terribly sorry, but I simply can’t keep him,” Jack said, putting on his best apologetic face.  “Landlord’s changed the rules, you know.  No dogs, he says, they stink up the place…we had a few good years, a few QUIET years—“ and he shot the dog a look.  Sitting inside the cage, muzzle in place, Buster still managed a grin with his eyes.

“Yes, yes, well, we understand completely, happens all too often,” the shelter attendant said.  “Of course, there’s a fee…”  Jack paid out the bills, and nodded to the man.

“Right, then,” he said, “I’ll be on my way.”  He turned and walked toward the door, feeling much lighter now that both of his annoyances—the hangover and the dog—were behind him.  The day was much improved already, and looking up.  Why, he was feeling practically charitable…he stopped at an open stand by the door, with a half-dozen kittens at the bottom.  “You know, the new rules don’t ban ALL pets,” he said, and turned back to the attendant.  “How much is the fee for the kittens?”

***

He put the car in fifth gear, and smiled, enjoying the warmth of the sun on his face.  “Glad THAT’S behind me,” he said aloud.  “What a crazy thing!  Talking dogs.  Who would believe it?  I’m not even sure I believe it.  I wonder if maybe I was slipping a little?  Starting to lose my mind?”  He gave a chuckle, and shook his head.

“Maybe,” said a high-pitched voice from the cage in the passenger seat.

“Yes,” said the second kitten.  “After all, talking to yourself, that can’t be a good sign, now, can it?”

They stared at him.  He stared at them.

“Hmm,” the first kitten said a moment later.  “I wonder if he really meant to leave the door open?  And do you think he’ll be coming back?  I rather liked him.  Shame about the drinking though.  That sort of thing will give you a hangover.”

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