Image Credit: Michael Chin
I started losing Tim when he hit high school. I guess everyone does. After all, what are those teenage years for but developing independence by way of rejecting your parents? I stayed out past curfew to make out in vacant parking lots, then started climbing out my bedroom window to do the same after I’d been grounded.
I’m a better parent than my mother and father were, though. It’s easy to be now, with books and websites and podcasts all dedicated to effective parenting. Have a question? There’s an answer. It’s just a matter of making time to find the answer.
Time—that’s the trouble.
I haven’t had time to figure out Tim, to research the right solution. It’s tax season, so the hours at work have been killing me without a minute to steal for Googling.
I haven’t been connecting with Tim the way I’d like. I barely have the mental energy to leave him lunch money, let alone to pack him a sandwich.
I’m trying. The other night, I heard him talking on the phone about Pink Man and how much he liked him, so when I was out at the store and saw a Pink Man—a plush toy by the checkout aisle, I bought him one. A total impulse buy, but it was only five bucks. I thought it odd that a teenage boy would like such a thing—when I was growing up, the boys would have thought it was a sissy toy, but the times are changing and I decided I wouldn’t question it. Maybe he’d be so thankful to have his own Pink Man that he’d open up to me about the rest of his life. I pictured him sitting on the couch, hugging the toy tight and telling me about the girl he had a crush on at school or how he was nervous about an upcoming lit test. Experiences I could relate to, and maybe even impart wisdom on.
“What’s this?” I’d handed Pink Man to him, or at least tried to, but Tim only pinched its arm between this thumb and forefinger, quizzical to say the least.
“It’s Pink Man!” I was so proud to even speak the same language as him. I thought of it like when my mother surprised me when I was a teen by not only knowing who Counting Crows were, but even humming along to a bit of “Round Here” on the radio. “I heard you talking about him the other night. That he was a—a badass.” That part felt more forced, like when Mom had tried to sing along to the bridge.
“Pink Man?” The words sounded foreign on Tim’s tongue, like he really never had spoken them before, despite what I’d heard, and he eyed the toy carefully, going so far as to sit it on his lap. “Wait a second, you mean Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad?”
I knew in that instant that I’d made a horrible mistake.
I’d never watched Breaking Bad but thought it was a show about a drug dealer and the kind of show Tim shouldn’t have been watching, but I didn’t have time to focus on that before he was blasting me for listening in on his private phone call.
So Pink Man became a toy for Waffles.
Waffles, loyal companion to me and Tim after the divorce. Waffles, named as such because the first night my ex-husband and I had him, he ate the remaining half of a Belgian waffle left over from breakfast that we’d left out on the coffee table. Waffles, a gold-furred Labrador Retriever who I hated to admit that I looked forward to seeing more than Tim when I got home at night.
Waffles watched my whole exchange with Tim, seated on the floor in an obedient posture, the posture of just waiting for a command. He was a good dog.
Tim slammed his bedroom door. I set down Pink Man by Waffles’s feet.
Waffles bent toward the thing, sniffed carefully then picked it up between his teeth and bounced away, happy.
I do not like this little pink man the woman gave to me.
At first, I thought I did like him. He was soft and did not smell bad.
But then, he was always there.
I woke and he was there, at my nose. I did not like that and barked to warn him, but he was not one of the real people so he did not understand. Or so I thought.
The little pink man was always there, when I woke and when I came inside from poop and running fun times in the yard. By my food dish. On the couch by the woman when I came to her at night because I no longer came to the boy after he kicked me out of his bed many nights ago and I did not like it and understood that he did not like me anymore.
Maybe the boy brought this little pink man, then. The woman handed him to me, but she is kind and I cannot imagine her hurting me. But the boy. I did not like the boy so much those days.
I began to dream of the little pink man.
The little pink man chased me down the hallway but it was a longer hallway and he was mean and he grew bigger and I barked for help but no one came, though I heard the boy’s laughter because he liked the idea that I would die in this hallway and be eaten by the pink man who was not so little anymore.
I woke to find the little pink man there again, leaned against my face. I barked, yes, but also clamped down. Bit. Bit like I only did to food or like I’d always imagined I would if one of the people who came to the door hurt the woman or the boy.
I did not like the little pink man, and felt better when his white insides stuck out from his neck. When his head hung loose, flopped down against his arm. There was peace again, and though the woman looked sad when she took his body I rubbed my body against her leg and wagged my tail to make her feel better.
When I was young, my mother told me that the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know. I assumed that was just her, because she never read anything but those glossy celebrity magazines. Of course she’d never learn anything that way. I vowed that I would be different.
I’ve resigned myself that I won’t understand Tim for the time being, so I’m focused on things I can understand until he got his hormones or whatever bug’s up his butt under control.
I understand Waffles.
Waffles understands love. Unconditional love. For me. For Pink Man, who he carried with him everywhere, who he had by his side while he slept. All Waffles doesn’t understand is how to love, so he plays too hard, and sinks his teeth into Pink Man’s stuffing until it litters the floor.
I can fix this situation.
It was silly to buy Waffles another toy after he wrecked the first one inside of a week, but what’s five dollars for a dog’s happiness? If Waffles had money to give—if he understood it—I’m sure he’d give it all for our happiness.
And I was in luck. There were still Pink Mans—Pink Men?—at the end of most every cashier’s lane at the grocery store. I bought two, for the inevitability that Waffles would eventually tear up this one, too. And dogs, unlike teenage boys, won’t outgrow their affections. It could be a matter of years, and I could still surprise Waffles with another Pink Man, still see him wag his tail, still get an appreciative nestle into my leg or a lick on the cheek before he bounds off to play some more. What’s ten bucks for not one, but two of those moments?
The little pink man is back. He waits for me.
I found him waiting by my soft, good dog bed in the corner of the living room, where I sleep most nights now that the boy does not welcome me.
I backed away at first, watching for signs of movement.
Maybe he was asleep. This little pink man. This thing. I had my chance.
I set upon him, sinking my teeth deep into his flesh, like when the full grown man still lived with us and dropped his steak off the grill and I stole it and ran. The meat was juicy and good tasting enough to bear the scolding after. To be told I was a bad dog. I knew I was bad. But aren’t we all bad sometimes?
No matter how bad I was, the little pink man is worse.
I put my right paw on his face and tore the rest of him away. A cleaner break. Killing him, and maybe killing him hard enough he wouldn’t come back.
I took nothing for granted about this little pink man who came back. I left him by the big door the woman and the boy come through to make it easy for his body to be taken.
When I turned around, I found the boy watching me, smiling, but not in the boyish way he used to. More like the mean man those nights he climbed on top of the woman and hurt her and I wanted to bite him but I was afraid he would do more than tell me I was bad. That he would hurt me, too.
I’d never feared the boy before.
Waffles plays too rough. Maybe it’s because we’re not giving him enough attention. He went through another Pink Man already. I thought about keeping the third one from him for a while, but then decided we’d might as well get it over with—the extra Pink Man wasn’t doing anyone any good tucked away in a drawer. So what if Waffles did tear apart this one, too? It’s the last one I’ll get for him.
If there’s one silver lining, it’s what I silently observed, working on my laptop on the recliner, the TV on mute, Waffles snoring softly in his bed. He’d forgotten Pink Man in another room, and Tim carried it to him.
I pretended not to watch—was careful to avoid eye contact and to keep my face tilted down to the glow of the computer screen until Tim’s back was to me and he bent to Waffles’s side. He put Pink Man down by the side of the bed, carefully, adjusting it to the left, a millimeter to the right, until it was squarely in front of Waffles’s nose, so there was no question it would be the first thing the dog saw when he woke. Then Tim snuck away, stepping more softly than I’d ever seen him before, so careful not to wake his old friend.
And in that moment, I knew Tim would be all right. It was one thing to be distant from his mother, but as long as he could remember how to care for someone else, he would still be good. He would still find his way back to me. He would still know love.
No, Tim didn’t say good night to me when he slunk all the way upstairs to spend the rest of the night doing whatever teenage boys do alone in their rooms. But he left me with Waffles and with Pink Man. Left me here where I wait to see the delight on the dog’s face when his eyes open wide and he claims Pink Man as his own once again.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and his hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals includingThe Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.