What Is It that You Want from Me?Joseph Lerner
"What is it that you want from me?" Carol said. Her dachshund, Harry, jumped at her bare legs, which made her jump too. The weather, though promising, was still much too cold.
"What is it that I want?" Mike asked, walking faster to keep up with her. "What is it that I want?" he repeated.
They stopped before the office building where he worked.
"Well?" she said. "Are you going inside?"
"Come inside with me."
"I can't take the dog, remember? Unlike my company."
In his office he kept glancing out the window toward where he had last seen her. Eventually he turned to the papers and mail stacked haphazardly on his desk. "What is it that you want?" he asked, staring morosely at them.
He picked up several letters at random. One advertised baby products--formula, diapers, toys. He wondered how he had gotten on that mailing list. Another was a brochure from the company's travel agent.
It advertised specials for Aruba, the Antilles, Malta. He remembered his and Carol's first (and only) long vacation---to Thailand and Bali---just before getting married. The vacation had gone well except that when they had returned to pick up Harry from the pound they had found him so traumatized that he had become skittish and depressed for weeks.
Carol did not forget that it was Mike who had persuaded her, against her better judgment, to board the dachshund.
He put down the mail. What is it that you want from me? Early in their relationship such questions had been a game, light-hearted and teasing. During sex: what is it that you want now? Walking Harry: if dogs dream, are they random or do they spring from fear, hope and desire, like ours? With friends: which ones are true friends, and which just want something?
But lately her questions, if prosaic in one sense, were also more barbed: Don't you want a better job, have children, own our own home?
Mike got little done that morning, and at noon when a co-worker, Don, asked if he wanted to go with him and Liz, another co-worker, to lunch, he said yes, forgetting he had planned to meet Carol.
They decided on the corner deli because of its proximity, but found it so crowded they were forced to stand in line in the cold anyway.
After they sat and ordered, Liz said, "I am beside myself."
"Why?" asked Don, who had squeezed beside her in the tiny booth. People jostled each other in the take-out line just next to Mike, and he had to lean forward to hear his co-workers.
"It's my apartment," Liz said. "There's water seeping up from the kitchen floor, the fuses are always shorting, and the back door steps are broken. I've told the landlord, but he says I have to fix them."
"That's illegal," said Don. "Let me talk to my attorney."
"What's worse," Liz continued, "the landlord lives next door, and his dog is always tearing up my garden." She paused. "I'm thinking of burying poisoned food pellets out there. Just enough to make him sick," she added quickly.
Both Don and Mike fell silent. All three ate quickly---half their lunch hour already had been spent waiting and ordering---and then returned to the office.
Mike phoned Carol to apologize, but she was not available. Later in the afternoon he went to several meetings that Liz also attended, but he avoided looking at or speaking with her. He decided to leave the office early, despite the report his boss wanted completed by the next day.
On his way home he passed a lawn-and-garden shop. He stared at the window display, slick with vapor. Orchids, hibiscus and oleander gleamed, multifaceted as jewels. Before he and Carol had met he had gardened himself, and had often planted aconitum---monk's hood----or nereum---a kind of oleander, both of whose poison discouraged blackbirds and other creatures from raiding his garden. But he doubted if aconitum or nereum would work on a dog.
At his front doorstep Mike heard the TV on. That probably meant that Carol had brought Harry home during her lunch break---the dachshund was less lonely with the TV for company. But as Mike walked through the house (and called out his name) Harry could not be found.
Annoyed, he turned off the TV. He entered the kitchen, sat at the table, and gazed at the trees out the window. The dogwoods should bloom soon, he thought. They were hard-pressed to afford a house and yard so close to downtown; it was a shame not to keep a garden too. He then noticed in his pocket the crumbled travel brochure he earlier had read, and set it on the table, smoothing it out.
He heard the front door open. Carol---without the dog---entered the kitchen. She looked drawn and pale, and a few gray hairs were showing.
"Did you get my message?" he asked. She nodded. "Where's Harry?"
"He got sick at work---"
"---and so I dropped him off at the vet's. He has to stay overnight."
"That must be one unhappy dachshund. What should we eat for dinner?"
"I don't feel like cooking tonight."
"I mean I don't feel like eating." She sat down across from him. "Have you thought about what I said?"
"You mean---what is it that I want from you?"
"I haven't thought much. I don't understand. Is the question some sort of puzzle, like a Zen koan?"
"I know what I want," she said, her voice suddenly pitched high. She balled her fists, and a tear glistened on her cheek. "I'm thirty-five years old, Mike."
"There's still time."
"I don't want to wait!"
Her husband rose from the table. He left the kitchen and entered the bedroom. As he lay atop the unmade bed, he heard Carol begin to cry. Again he looked out the window. If it weren't for Harry he could plant a garden. Or quit his job and take a long trip, to Aruba, the Antilles, or Malta.
Copyright ©1999 Joseph Lerner. All Rights Reserved.
Please contact the editor for free text versions of this very short story formatted for e-mail, usenet news, or ftp.