Two Alternatives and an Imperative

Danny Staves, a pale eight-year-old, sat on the curb in front of his house picking at an opened can of peanuts. He wore slightly over-sized shorts that made his stork-like legs look even thinner and his white knees knobbier. He was a pretty child with a delicate heart-shaped face, big liquid eyes, and brown hair. His sisters and mother indulged him, but as he had been born with a gentle and unselfish nature, he had somehow escaped spoiling. He was eating with casual pleasure the peanuts his oldest sister had bought him earlier that day.
 
Next to him, chewing on a spray of fallen leaves, sprawled Pete, the family’s year-old golden retriever. Though just about full-grown, Pete lay like a puppy, his back legs out behind him. Danny adored the dog. Every time Danny helped himself to a peanut, Pete looked up, raised his yellow eyebrows and was rewarded with a peanut of his own. Pete’s nose was damp and sensitive, and the hairs just above it especially smooth, close, and flat-lying. From time to time Danny would reach out a finger and draw it lightly over the little hairs, both with and against the grain. Pete shook his head, snorted, and checked for peanuts.
 
They sat in the delicious sunshine until Danny saw, toiling up the steep sidewalk, another boy whom Danny recognized immediately, thanks to the spherical figure he cut as he pushed his bicycle.
 
The second boy was older than Danny by several years and was gradually shedding a generous allotment of baby fat. With the sun beating down so bright, his blonde hair seemed to have given up being any color at all. In the neighborhood he was known as both precocious and peculiar. He was the kind of child who made the mothers of other children grateful that their offspring were “only normal.” He read – in itself unusual – and he read a lot. He was rumored to have worked his way from A to Z of his parents’ set of the World Book Encyclopedia as well as Palgrave’s Book of English Songs and Lyrics by the age of ten. He also loved to talk, but since his peers avoided him, his audiences consisted of persons either younger or much older than himself. This only excited his eccentricities to further riot. He reasoned out every matter, his curiosity was insatiable, his frame of reference academic, and no one had any idea whether he suffered inwardly from being neither child nor man.
 
Just now, the Genius, as he’d been dubbed locally, was reasoning that there was no point in riding a bicycle uphill if it could, with less expenditure of effort, be walked, and so he plodded along until he came up even with Danny and Pete.
 
“Mind if I hang out with you a while?” he asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. Danny shifted to make room for the newcomer while the Genius balanced his bike against a nearby hedge.
 
“Well,” intoned the Genius, “how goes my young friend in the flower of his youth? And his noble companion, the golden Pete?”
 
Pete raised his big head upon hearing his name. Danny said contentedly, “We’re fine.” He could enjoy the Genius’s occasional company. He only had to listen, never exert himself, in that voluble presence.
 
“And so,” resumed the Genius, once he had made himself comfortable on the curb, “here you sit on a beautiful afternoon eating peanuts with your dog. That’s very philosophical of you, I’d say. Epicurean, in fact. And, of course, you too, Pete. May I partake of your philosophy?” He unfolded a pink, plump palm in the direction of the peanut can.
 
Danny moved the can between them. Just as he’d expected, the Genius removed a bulging fistful of peanuts.
 
At this, Pete slapped the ground with a front paw. The Genius, however, ignored him and shoved the peanuts into his own mouth. All but one, that is, which bounded off the Genius’s crooked elbow and fell into the grass. Pete immediately ferreted it out.
 
“Your dog likes peanuts,” the Genius remarked with interest. “Good puppy,” he added, patting Pete gingerly on the summit of his head. Then he helped himself to a second fistful of peanuts.
 
“So do you,” ventured Danny. He was feeling a little worried. “My sister gave them to me for a present.”
 
“I do, I do,” agreed the Genius, his mouth full. “Peanuts are a personal favorite of mine, a food fit for the gods.” As he went for a third helping, Pete cocked his head, approving. “Ambrosia!” the Genius added.
 
When this third helping was about to meet the fate of the second and first, Pete emitted an anguished whine.
 
The Genius’s hand paused midway in the air. “Ah ha,” he said to the dog, “greedy, aren’t we?” He sprinkled a few nuts on the lawn and watched as Pete devoured them. Then he held the remaining fistful aloft, moving his hand from side to side, where it was faithfully tracked by the moist tip of Pete’s nose.
 
“Your dog’s a pig,” announced the Genius, concluding his researches. “They’re closely related, you know … dogs and pigs.”
 
“He’s not!” the child protested. “You’re just teasing him. That’s mean.”
 
“Now look,” said the Genius, “it’s nothing to get upset about. It’s a dog’s nature. A dog’ll do anything for food – that’s no secret. How else could they have been domesticated? Why do you think he follows you around all the time? I’ll tell you why – because you’re a very easy mark. Now just watch this.”
 
With his peanut-stuffed hand he executed a series of feints which poor Pete mirror-imaged.
 
“Stop it!” cried Danny.
 
“In fact,” the Genius continued unperturbed, “it’s true for people, too. I don’t discount myself. Do you know what it says in front of my mother’s cookbook?”
 
Danny maintained a sullen silence.
 
“It says, ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.’ So there. You can’t expect dogs to behave any better than men. Food comes first. There’s no impulse so basic. Right, Pete? What’s more important,” he asked, addressing the dog, “your little master or this delectable peanut?”
 
And he flicked a peanut so that it fell behind the dog. Pete scrambled to his feet and circled, snuffling, until he found it.
 
“Quod est demonstratum!” crowed the Genius. “I dare you to prove it isn’t so.”
 
“Pete loves me best,” Danny said stubbornly.
 
“Come on,” the Genius replied, “you’re being a baby now. You have to accept the realities of life. You have to take life on life’s terms.”
 
“Pete loves me,” Danny said again. His voice was low and trembled. “He loves me more than food.”
 
“Absurd!” shouted the Genius, slapping his hands against his fleshy thighs. “If he loves you, so-called, it’s because you feed him. You’re deluded.”
 
Danny was upset now and sat very still, though he shot a sidewise suspicious glance at Pete, whose tail wagged amicably.
 
“Look here,” the Genius offered, “we can put it to a test. That’s the scientific thing to do. How about we try this – you walk back towards your house and call him, and, at the same time, I’ll give him a chance at these peanuts.”
 
Danny was silent. He didn’t like the idea. He was afraid.
 
“To be fair,” the Genius continued thoughtfully, “I’ll stand as far away from him as you do. Then we’ll see which way he goes.”
 
Danny gathered up his courage. It was true he often gave Pete his dinner, not to mention innumerable snacks and treats. “OK,” he said uncertainly and rose on toothpick legs to hand the can of peanuts to the Genius. Like miniature duelists, they took up their respective positions, pacing off the ground as they went, while Pete, confused, remained dead center between them.
 
The boys faced one another, poised, and the Genius made a sign with his arm. “Here Pete,” shouted Danny urgently. “Here Pete, good dog!” Now at a safe distance from the Genius, he allowed two anxious tears the freedom of his cheeks.
 
“Here Pete,” shouted the Genius at the same time, shaking the peanuts in their can. “Food, boy – peanuts!”
 
Pete looked first one way, then the other, over his golden shoulders. His tail began to wag, then stopped; he took an excited bound backwards, barked once, and finally froze. His front legs looked oddly bowed and springy. Danny thought his heart would burst from the suspense.
 
All of a sudden, Pete was running at full speed, his lean body elongated, his fur floating, more or less in the direction of the Genius. But he wasn’t interested in the Genius. He streaked right past him and the rattling can of peanuts and drew up with magnificent violence three lots further down, where a little black dog was standing with her hindquarters fully presented and her tail swept languidly to the side.
 
Pete gave her a quick sniff, moaned as if in pain, and then performed a series of mincing steps at her side. Off mark, he attempted to mount and thrust in no particular order.
 
The two boys watched, thunderstruck, as they drifted back together. Danny’s dark eyes opened wide, and he appeared even paler than usual. “What’s he doing?” he finally asked the Genius in a hushed voice.
 
The Genius was pale, too, beneath his mask of suntan and scattered freckles, but he did his best to take a knowing approach. “Aw, he’s screwing,” he said, and, strangely enough, his voice broke as if he were hoarse. “Copulating,” he added more emphatically. “Fucking,” he hissed.
 
“What’s that?” whispered Danny anxiously.
 
“Ask your sisters,” snapped the Genius. “I gotta go.” He pushed the peanuts back at Danny and with a vicious tug freed his bicycle from entanglement in the hedge.
 
As he pedaled away, his fleshy back churning, Danny looked on in amazement. He was too young to understand that in scientific experiments, unexpected results may be perfectly valid.
 
But the Genius was not too young. He had already sorted through the evidence and begun to consider its implications for his own uncertain future.
 

Front page image by Don Shall.

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Abby Rosenthal

About the Author

Abby Rosenthal was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Queens and on Long Island, and lived in upstate New York, California, Oklahoma, Washington DC, and Wyoming before settling in Tennessee. Her poems and stories have appeared in literary journals such as Alaska Quarterly, Carolina Quarterly, Chicago Review, Kansas Quarterly, and most recently (or soon) in Southern Poetry Review, Weber Journal,Apple Valley Review, and jewishfiction.net. She is also the author of Ardor’s Hut, a book of poetry. She and her husband, poet Thomas Johnson, currently reside in Memphis.
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