Lily and the Octopus(7)

Written By: Steven Rowley

“No?” Lily sounds offended.

“No,” I repeat, because it’s the truth. Then I pause for dramatic effect. “You, in fact, chose me.”

And she did. While Harry and Kelly and Rita carried on in a game that involved rolling and somersaulting, Lily broke free from the group and wandered over to where I was standing talking to the lady who bred them.

“I was thinking of keeping the boy one myself, unless you have particular use for him. He’s high-spirited, but I think he can be trained to show.”

I hadn’t given much thought to whether I wanted a boy or a girl. Not wanting to appear sexist and get on the wrong side of the woman who had the sole say in whether I’d be taking one of her puppies home, I said, “No, I’d be glad to choose from among the girls.”

I studied the pups, looking for the girls, and was at a loss to tell which one was male. I would have to pick each one up and make a subtle determination; worse than appearing sexist would be to come off as a pervert.

It was then that I noticed the puppy who became Lily gnawing on my shoelace. She clamped down and put herself in reverse until the lace had been gently untied.

“Hello, you adorable . . .” I crouched down and made my inspection. “Girl.”

“That’s the runt, that one there,” the lady replied, just this side of dismissively.

I picked up the runt and she snuggled under my chin, tail wagging like the pendulum of the smallest, most fragile grandfather clock.

“I’m Edward. People call me Ted,” I whispered into her ear before lowering my own ear to the top of her head. I heard her speak for the first time.


And so it was.

“I choose this one,” I told the lady.

“You can have your pick of any one. The male, even, if you really want. I’m not sure this one will show all that well.”

“All the same, I’m not really interested in showing her. So I choose this one.”

I worried for a second she was going to try to discourage me further from choosing this puppy. She studied us both for a moment as I held the runt protectively, and eventually her face softened and relented. I wondered if she wasn’t just relieved to have someone take the runt so she could charge more for the rest of her flawless litter.

“Seems like she kind of chose you.” And then, after a beat, “I suppose that’s how it works.” She finished with the off-center smile of a car salesman who’s just sold a lemon for nearly full price.

I tell Lily this story over the Monopoly board and she seems satisfied. Touched, even. I smile at her, but sideways so I don’t have to acknowledge the octopus. She shakes her head and her ears flop back and forth and the familiar chime of her collar and dog tags jingle the room alive. It’s only after she stops that I realize I’ve been gripping my chair so tightly my fingers are white. I suppose I was hoping she would shake her head so violently that the octopus would lose its grip, sail across the room, and splat against the wall, dying instantly.

For the first time tonight I look at her head-on, and the octopus is still there, still holding on tight, only now (and I kid you not) the son of a bitch is smiling at me.

You motherf*cker.

Lily looks at me, confused. “What?”

I compose myself as quickly as I can. “It’s your turn,” I say, hoping to reengage her in the game.

“No, it’s not.”

“Yes, it is. You rolled double fours so you get to roll again. Do you want me to roll for you?”

“Does it look like I’ve suddenly grown hands?” She’s learned that sarcasm from me, something I used to be proud of but now find abrasive.

I roll the dice. Double twos. Lily and I look at each other for a few long seconds—both of us know what it means. I reluctantly pick up her battleship and move it directly to Jail.

Saturday Late Afternoon

There are times when Los Angeles is the most magical city on Earth. When the Santa Ana winds sweep through and the air is warm and so, so clear. When the jacaranda trees bloom in the most brilliant lilac-violet. When the ocean sparkles on a warm February day and you’re pushing fine grains of sand through your bare toes while the rest of the country is hunkered down under blankets slurping soup. But other times—like when the jacaranda trees drop their blossoms in an eerie purple rain—Los Angeles feels like only a half-formed dream. Like perhaps the city was founded as a strip mall in the early 1970s and has no real reason to exist. An afterthought from the designer of some other, better city. A playground made only for attractive people to eat expensive salads.

I’m flipping through a menu of such salads, overwhelmed with the ridiculousness of it all. Do I want a dressed array of greens with pickled yardlong beans? Perhaps I am more in the mood for sautéed beetroot and chicory. Or do I go all in with the fifty-ingredient Guatemalan salad? This is the city I live in. Can I even name fifty salad ingredients? I purse my lips with indecision. They feel dry.

“I think I’m addicted to ChapStick.” I look up. Did I just say that out loud?

“How can you be addicted to ChapStick?” he asks, tossing back the last of his drink. His forehead is dripping sweat, but I don’t think it’s nerves. I think he’s just the kind of guy who sweats a lot.

“Someone once told me they put trace amounts of ground-up glass in ChapStick. That’s how they get you addicted to it. The little shards of glass give you hundreds of microscopic cuts that dry out your lips, making you need . . . more ChapStick. I seriously looked at the label one time, as if in addition to 44 percent petrolatums, 1.5 percent padimate, 1 percent lanolin, and .5 percent cetyl alcohol it was going to say 4.5 percent broken glass. It doesn’t.” He looks at me, stunned. Not knowing what else to do, I continue. “It’s a cover-up. The Whitehall-Robins Healthcare Company of Madison, New Jersey, which distributes ChapStick, is probably owned by The Altria Group, which is a made-up name for what used to be Philip Morris to make people associate them less with tobacco.” And then, to punctuate the sentence: “They own a lot of stuff.”

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