a literary review
At first it bothered Miep that her new teacher Mr. Samuels reminded
her of her dead dog Sammy. Sammy was a spaniel mix with a bushy
silvery blonde coat and Mr. Samuels is blonde and hirsute. Thick tufts
of white-yellow hair curl out the top of Mr. Samuels’s collar and from
beneath his shirt cuffs. His finger segments are bristly, though his
knuckles and palms are as pink as Sammy’s paw pads.
For as long as she can remember, people have been telling her that she
looks like her mother did when she was a girl, or like her Uncle Jimmy
before he bloated up, or like the actress who played the possessed
demon-girl in that old movie. People were always saying someone looked
like so-and-so, and Miep had always thought they were negligent
Sammy never walked—he always ran or at the very least trotted—and
he had a hitch in his step resulting from a crash with a neighbor’s
golf cart. Mr. Samuels bounds unevenly up and down the aisles between
the rows of desks. He told the class that a piece of farm equipment
ran over his leg when he was a boy and after it healed his right leg
was 1-½ inches shorter than the left.
One of Miep’s favorite memories is of the first time her parents took
her and Sammy to Forest Park. Her father released the leash and Sammy
took one look at the water and bolted, running pell-mell down Art Hill
and straight into the Grand Basin, and her parents started hollering
and chasing Sammy, and Miep held her breath because they didn’t know
if Sammy could swim. Mr. Samuels is fearless like that, Miep thinks,
although she has no hard evidence. One day she asked Mr. Samuels if he
could swim, and he said no one wanted to see that. He laughed then,
Sammy died of mast cell tumors—the bad kind—a year after his
diagnosis. The veterinary oncologist said such tumors were rare in
spaniels, especially in the spine. She said that only a small
percentage of dogs suffered severe side effects from Vinblastine, the
drug they gave him. She said it was well-tolerated by most dogs. The
vet spoke as if these distinctions should make them feel better, but
Miep didn’t understand how that would work.
When Mr. Samuels sits at his desk reading, his ears twitch and his
stomach poofs out. He keeps boxes of bite-sized peanut butter cookies
in his desk drawers. At lunch, he tosses them in the air and catches
them on his large, pale tongue. (She is always surprised and a little
disappointed when Mr. Samuels smiles and she sees his ordinary human
teeth.) He sighs a lot. He sniffs the air when he enters the
classroom. He likes to play catch on the playground. When Mr. Samuels
gets a cool idea, he opens his mouth with excitement, sometimes
leaving it open even when he can’t make the words come out right away.
Sammy didn’t talk of course, but this is exactly what he would have
looked like if he had. Miep hopes this incidence of resemblance is
exclusive to Mr. Samuels and Sammy. She wants to believe that humans
and canines share the one-of-a-kindness of stars and snowflakes and
unique prime numbers.
Miep tries not to feel sorry for herself even when the bread of her
tuna fish sandwich is stale and there’s a hole in her left sock that
she can’t stop wriggling her toe through, and she’s managed to erase a
matching hole in the day’s arithmetic worksheet. She tries to be brave
as she grips the back of the seat in front of her on the school bus
and when Pamela Girardoni spikes a volleyball right at her face.
Of course, she is too old and too smart to believe that Sammy found a
way to inhabit her teacher’s body because he’s sorry he died right
before her parents split up and her mom got a new job and couldn’t
drive Miep to her new school and she had to take gym and learn long
division. But when Mr. Samuels sets aside his chalk in the middle of
his blackboard demonstration of how to bring down the next number of
the dividend and scratches at a spot behind his left ear as if his
life depended on it, Miep smiles.
Valerie Vogrin is the author of the novel Shebang. Her collection Things We’ll Need for the Coming Difficulties was awarded the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction and is forthcoming from Willow Springs Press. Her short stories have appeared in print in journals such as Ploughshares, AGNI, and The Los Angeles Review, online at Hobart and Bluestem, and in The Best Small Fictions 2015. She teaches creative writing at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She lives with her husband, dog, and cat on a tiny unnamed lake in Moro, Illinois.