The Dog that Broke the Camel's Back
David E. Hughes and Lesley L. Smith
Pete didn't believe in life after death, but still he wondered if crazy old Uncle Herman was looking down on him. Maybe he was watching right now, as Pete bounded up the steps to his dull, two-bedroom condo, feeling like the world was his octopus. The familiar dread that usually came over him as he opened the front door was gone. Not even Barb would be able to bring him down tonight.
"Luuucy, I'm home," said Pete in his best Ricky Ricardo voice.
Barb scowled at him from her perch on the designer couch--the one she would never let him sit on. "You're late." She took a swallow of chardonnay from a long-stemmed glass.
He gulped. Barb drinking like a fish on a bicycle before dinner was never a good sign, but Pete refused to be rattled. "I told you I had to meet that lawyer after work." Come to think of it, it was getting pretty late, and Pete was hungry. "Uh, what's for dinner?"
"You tell me," Barb said. "I had no idea when you'd be home and there was a crisis here, which you missed." She waved her manicured hand dismissively. "I'm too upset to think about making dinner."
Pete sank down on "his" brown chair across from the couch. What now? "A crisis?"
"The bank called. They've initiated foreclosure proceedings on the condo!" Barb's voice took on that shrill tone it got when she was really upset and not just pretending to be upset.
For a change, Pete's thoughts didn't dwell on Barb's hundred-dollar hairdos or weekly mud massages. He didn't even think about the mind-numbing hours he was putting in at Lombari Reality trying to pay for it all. Instead, he suppressed a smile. "Oh. That."
"Oh, that!" Barb shrieked. "What's wrong with you? We're about to be thrown out on the street and you look like the cat that swallowed the canary! How can we have kids if we're living in a cardboard box?"
Pete sighed. "If you didn't spend so much money, maybe we wouldn't have these problems." He had to get Barb off this foreclosure thing, or she would stick with it like a dog chewing up the wrong tree. "I have great news, honey," he said. "Uncle Herman died!"
Barb put down her glass and stared at him. "Pete! That's unkind. He may have been a bit cuckoo, but I can't believe you said that!"
"Uh. No. That came out wrong," Pete said, flustered. "It's not great that he died. It's great that he left us his house!"
Barb narrowed her eyes. "What's the catch?"
"Uh, no catch," Pete said, not looking at her. The ghost pet boarding business that came with the house was a catch Barb didn't need to know about--at least not in her present state.
"Oh," Barb said. "That is good news. I mean it's too bad about Uncle Herman, but Shelia Muffport will be just green with envy when she finds out I'll be living in an old Victorian on Spruce Street." She gave Pete a look that might be interpreted as a smile. "What would you like for dinner?"
At first, Pete thought about cashing in by selling the assets and letting the business just fade into the sunset along with his uncle. Uncle Herman was the black sheep of the family in wolf's clothing. But once Pete saw the income stream the business generated, he changed his mind. Uncle Herman might have been nuts, but he wasn't stupid. Hell, bump up the number of boarders and in ten years, Pete would be sitting on a cool million. Not even Barb could spend that kind of dough.
Uncle Herman's instructions to Pete in the will were specific: "To my nephew Peter J. Hortzmyer, I leave my home business, Comfort Ghost Pet Boarding, including my home at 123 Spruce Street in Boulder, Colorado and all personal and real property associated with the business. The business shall be operated in the same manner that I operated said business." The lawyer told Pete that "manner and conditions" stuff wasn't really enforceable, so he didn't worry about that too much.
The first thing Pete did when he reopened Uncle Herman's biz was to change the ad. Herman had placed a small ad in the Daily Camera: Boarding for Ghost House Pets, reasonable rates. Class 3 and 4 housetrained ghosts only." Yawn. No wonder Herman's client list was so small. Pete snazzed it up: "Ghost Pet Boarding! Low rates! All pets welcome!"
Sure enough, Pete got a new customer the first day he ran the ad. A man pulled up in a pick-up with a horse trailer hitched to it. He wore a flannel shirt, jeans, work boots, and a dirty John Deere baseball cap. "You board large animals?" asked the man when Pete answered the door.
Pete smiled. "Only the ghostly variety."
The man shifted his weight. "I need to go to Houston for a week and I can't take ol' Buck with me. How much?"
"Seven hundred," Pete said. "In advance."
The man didn't blanch. "Fine. You'll take good care of him?"
Pete nodded, trying to look sage and dignified. "Of course."
The man paid in rumpled bills of small denominations.
"Where shall I put him?" he asked.
"The back yard is fine."
Pete watched in amazement as the man carefully opened the horse trailer, grabbed some invisible reins, and walked to the backyard. He talked soothingly over his shoulder the whole time. A strange sight, but Pete supposed it was the kind of thing he'd get used to.
The next morning, Barb, trowel in hand, sauntered into the kitchen from the backyard while Pete was finishing his morning coffee. "Wouldn't you know it; something's been eating the vegetables in the garden."
Pete put on his slippers and followed her outside. Sure enough, some carrots had been pulled from the ground, lettuce had been chewed on, and a few of the tomato plants had been trampled.
"Hmm," Pete said. "Rabbits. Big ones. Looks like we're going to have to build a rabbit fence." Pete wondered why Uncle Herman had never mentioned the rabbit problem.
"Thanks, Pete," Barb said. "Today, okay?"
Pete stood still, a goofy smile plastered on his face. Wow; Barb actually said 'thanks'. For a moment, it felt like the relationship he and Barb used to have, an easy intimacy that could blossom into passion at any moment. He'd missed those days, but maybe now they were coming back.
But Pete never got around to building the fence that day. Business was booming. A nice couple from Denver wanted to board an empty leash they called "Mr. Kibbles." Pete took their money and stuck the leash in his kitchen drawer. A man who looked like he was on his way to Sturges brought in a big cage with a label on it that read "Bruno." The woman identified herself only as "Ms. Boston" brought a fishbowl filled with everything you'd want in a modern aquarium except fish. And they kept coming: dogs, cats, gerbils, and even a snake.
By the time the sun went down, Pete was too tired to build that rabbit fence-but not too tired to total his receipts. Nearly ten thousand dollars! That'd keep the wolf from the window! He felt guilty about taking these kooky people's money, but heck, it was their choice.
When Barb got home from her trip to the hairdresser, she wasn't in as good a mood as Pete, but then she didn't know about the ten grand. "Ugh. My dogs are barking," she said as she kicked off her Italian pumps and headed into the kitchen. She glanced into the backyard. "You promised to build a rabbit fence," she said and reached for the wine bottle.
"Don't skin your kittens," Pete said. "I'll do it tomorrow."
"Well, you better do it early. Mom and dad are coming over after breakfast to see the new house."
"Really?" That was strange. Barb's parents had basically disowned him when he'd bombed his LSATs and couldn't get into law school. In fact, he suspected they were out to sabotage the marriage. He was convinced they were responsible for the Raw Men magazine subscription that had started coming in the mail and for the scuba instruction that Barbara had "won" from a sexy Brazilian. "Why?"
Barb raised her eyebrows. "They seem to believe that our new address means you're moving up in the world. I didn't tell them about Uncle Herman. I thought it might be better if they thought you actually earned it."
"Thanks, I guess."
"Just try not to blow it this time."
After dinner, Barb fell asleep while they were watching TV. Pete thought she looked calm and beautiful--just like the girl he married, until a loud commercial woke her up.
"I had the most vivid dream," she said with a strange expression on her face. "I dreamt we had a dog and he was lying on my feet, keeping them warm." She looked down at her feet. "I can still feel him. It's so weird."
Pete felt a sudden surge of passion. "You think that's warm, wait until I take you upstairs and . . . and-achoo!" His sneeze reverberated through the whole house.
Barb nearly jumped off the couch, but a coy smile crept across her face. "You were saying?" She stretched, thrusting her arms back and her chest out.
Pete couldn't wait to get upstairs. "I was saying, I've got a hot . . . a hot . . . achoo!" Damn! His eyes and nose were itching like a hound with bees. What was wrong with him?
Barb frowned. "You okay?" she asked. She actually sounded concerned. "Maybe you should take some Benadryl or something."
"Good idea," said Pete. Now where had he put his allergy medication when they moved in? He opened a drawer in the kitchen, but found only Mr. Kibbles' leash. Maybe that's what was causing his reaction. Perhaps Mr. Kibbles had left some dog hair behind. No use taking risks. He threw the leash in the back yard. He's deal with the damn thing in the morning. He'd better find that Benadryl so he could go upstairs and make love with Barb like a couple of mongooses.
Even with the ten grand tucked away in his desk drawer and a hefty dose of Benadryl, Pete felt like crap the next morning. Much to Barb's amusement last night, he was sneezing so much he couldn't wake his little beast. He's never had that problem before. His allergies had gotten worse as the night went on, but Barb claimed she had her best night of sleep in a long time because her feet were so warm. Go figure.
Pete had barely finished slurping down some breakfast when the doorbell rang. It was the nice couple from Denver. Already? Dang. They better not ask for a refund.
"I know we said we'd be gone three nights," said the woman. "But we decided we missed Mr. Kibbles too much."
The man smiled. "You know how it is."
Pete forced a grin. "Oh, I sure do. Mr. Kibbles is a joy. Why don't you two wait here on the porch while I go and get him?"
Pete went to the drawer where he'd stuck the leash, but it wasn't there. Then he remembered the Benedryl incident. Crap! He sprinted into the back yard, but didn't see the leash. He was sure he hadn't thrown it that far; it should be right by the back door.
"Everything okay?" called the woman from the front door.
"Just fine!" Pete shouted. "It seems Mr. Kibbles is having such a good time he doesn't want to leave." Where the hell was that leash?
After a frantic search of the backyard, Pete found the leash near the vegetable garden. He couldn't possibly have thrown it that far, and he noticed the garden was even more torn up than it had been yesterday. And then it hit him: the rabbits. Those giant rabbits must have taken the leash. He wondered why rabbits would be interested in a dog leash, but who the heck knew the ways of wild animals? He'd have to get to that fence today.
Back on the front porch, Pete said, "Here you go." He tried not to look frazzled as he handed the couple their leash . . . er, dog.
"Mr. Kibbles!" exclaimed the woman. "You're a mess! What have you gotten into?"
Pete smiled lambishly. "He loved our backyard."
The man stared at him appraisingly. "You sure this operation is legit?"
"Yes sir," Pete said. "We've been in business over twenty years." Or at least Uncle Herman had. And it was a cash bull. He needed it with Barb around.
Pete barely had time to take a shower before the doorbell rang again. A short, balding man with a badge and a clipboard stood at the door. "I'm from the City of Boulder Code Enforcement Department. We received a complaint that you are keeping a horse on this property."
Pete pretended to laugh. "A horse? Who would keep a horse on property like mine? In the middle of the city?"
"Petey?" called Barb from the top of the stairs inside. "How about finishing what you started last night?"
Yowza! Talk about an invitation he couldn't resist. "I'll be up in two shakes of a lark's tail, hon!"
The man didn't even blink. "You may not have a horse in your back yard now, but you clearly DID have a horse back there!" the little man said, shaking. "There are piles of evidence."
"Horse shit. I took pictures."
Pete didn't have time to wonder about a job that entailed sneaking into people's back yards and taking pictures of shit, and he tried not to think about a city inspector who couldn't tell the difference between horse and rabbit turds. "Just tell me what you want, quick." He glanced down the side yard into the backyard and for a second, he thought he saw something big and dark. He shook his head. It must have been a shadow; yeah, that's what it was.
"I'm giving you a code violation ticket," the paper-pusher said, "for--"
"Petey," floated down the stairs. "Hurry up."
"Sure," Pete said. "Whatever. It's water off a chicken's back to me. Just give it over." He grabbed the piece of paper the guy was waving in his face. "Now, go away." Pete slammed the door and ran back upstairs determined not to let the inspector's little ticket result in the need for a Viagra moment. He wanted to take advantage of Barb's rare good mood.
Trying something he hadn't practiced since college, he flung himself into the bed as he pulled down his pants. Unfortunately, his aim wasn't what it used to be, and he bonked his head on the headboard. "Owww!"
"Smooth move. You okay?" Barb didn't sound quite as concerned as she pretended to be, but he noticed her bra on the floor next to the bed. A very good sign.
"Fine. Fine." Pete wriggled his pants and boxers off the rest of the way. He ignored the ache in his skull. No time for distractions. He needed to get down to business.
"Oh, Pete!" said Barb. "You really were ready! Wow!"
What the heck was she talking about? His little beast had not awakened from its slumber yet.
"Pete?" asked Barb. Have you been doing . . . er, exercises or something? It feels longer . . . and kind of wriggly."
Wriggly? Oddly, Pete didn't feel a thing. Maybe the beast was sleepwalking or something. That hadn't happened before. He peaked beneath the sheets and went rigid-or at last most of him went rigid. Was that a snake? He'd better hope Barb didn't see what he saw or she would-
"Ahhhhh!" screamed Barb, pointing at the snake shape outlined under the sheet. "A snake, a snake!" She leapt out of the bed, still dressed only in her panties, and threw the sheet off the bed. "Wait. Where'd it go?"
Pete stared at the giant green reptile slithering next to him. How could she not see it? Finally, he unfroze enough to jump out of the bed.
Barb put her hands on her hips. "I should have known you'd screw this up like you screw up everything." She jogged for the bedroom door.
"Wait!" Pete shouted, running after her. "Where are you going?" And why was Barb always so negative?
But Barb didn't listen. He'd never seen her in such a state before. He looked down and noticed his personal beast had finally woken, probably from some repressed Natasha Kinski fantasy buried someplace in his brain. Thanks a lot, Beast. Great timing.
Then the doorbell rang.
Damn. That stupid code enforcement guy probably forgot to have Pete sign a form or something. Pete had half a mind to write the mayor about this invasion of his constipational rights.
Pete pulled on his boxers, but they didn't do much to hide his beast's efforts at clamoring for attention. Barb always seemed to work him up and then leave in a snit. He grabbed a pillow off the bed and stuck it in front of him. It would have to do.
The doorbell rang again.
"Hold your ponies!" shouted Pete. "I'm coming."
He bounded down the stairs and yanked open the door. "God damnit! If I have too--"
Pete's jaw hung slack. Standing at the door were his in-laws.
Reflexively, Pete pulled the pillow closer to his body. He tried to stretch his face into a smile. "Jeffery! Melinda! What a pleasant surprise."
Melinda pulled off her huge Oscar de Lorenta sunglasses and stared at Pete. Her beige pantsuit hung off of her like she was some magazine model. She was twenty years older than Pete, but she still had a killer body, maybe better than Barb's. The beast shifted uncomfortably.
"Didn't Barb tell you we were going to drop by?" asked Melinda.
Had she? That's right. Pete was supposed to work on the rabbit fence before they got here. So much for that. Right now he had bigger fish to broil.
"Of course she did," said Pete. "I just thought you were coming a little later."
Jeffery waved his Rolex-laden hand. "No big deal." He smiled, showing off his incredible dental work. If anyone was a match for Melinda, it was Jeffery. He was over fifty-five, but his waist was slimmer than most twenty-year-olds. "We're all family here, right?"
Pete blinked. He'd never heard Jeffery make a public admission that Pete was actually married to their precious daughter. Then Pete noticed Jeffery was staring at his bare chest. What was that all about?"
"Well, are you going to invite us in?" asked Jeffery.
"Uh, yes," said Pete. "Barb was just straightening up."
As he showed them in, Barb sprinted out of the kitchen. She was still naked. Her breasts bounced wildly as she moved, and Pete's beast cheered her on.
Pete himself was a little concerned about the twelve-inch chopping knife she held in her hand.
"I'm gonna kill that damned snake!" she shouted. She'd called him a snake on more than one occasion.
Then Barb noticed her parents, squeaked and sprinted back into the kitchen.
Pete laughed nervously. "We have a little pest problem."
"Cockroaches," said Melinda with her nose curled.
"Rabbits," he said. "And snakes."
Pete felt something soft and furry brush against his leg. He looked down and saw nothing. What the heck?
Muffled drawers slamming and pot-rattling sounds started coming from behind the kitchen door.
"Maybe I'd better-achoo!" Pete put his hands to his nose. The pillow dropped, and Pete's little beast made its dazzling appearance in the spotlight, obscured only by the paisley boxers.
"Oh my God!" exclaimed Melinda.
Jeffery stared unabashedly. When Pete looked at him, he winked.
Pete leaned down, grabbing for the pillow and felt only fur. He blinked. Was that a dog? It appeared to be a golden lab. He snatched up the pillow and stood up. "Does anyone else see...?" He glanced at his family. They were ignoring him and the dog that had appeared out of thin air. Pete scratched his head, almost losing his grip on the pillow.
Barb made her reappearance dressed in a 'Kiss the Cook' apron-and not much else. "Momma, Daddy, I'm sorry you had to see me like that. It was all Pete's fault, as usual."
The three of them turned as one and frowned at him.
"You know, he can't even get it up," Barb said. "He can't do that, just like he can't do anything else."
Jeffery cleared his throat. "Actually..."
Melinda poked him with her elbow.
Pete tried to focus on what Barb was saying, but more and more pets kept popping into view. They were surrounded. He suppressed a sneeze.
Melinda said, "But what about your new house?"
"The loser inherited it," Barb said with a smirk.
"Oh," both Jeffrey and Melinda said.
"That explains a lot," Jeffrey said.
Pete turned his gaze to Barb. He never noticed before, but she had mean little piggy eyes. "You know, Barb," he said. "You're a bitch."
Barb, Jeffrey and Melinda gasped.
"I make a perfectly good living; you just spend money until we're as poor as church rats. I don't know why I put up with you. You treat me like shit." He glanced down at the dog whose wagging tail seemed to be egging him on. "In fact, I want a divorce. Get the hell out of here!" He pointed out the front door.
Barb's mouth fell open.
"Get out!" Pete looked down at the dog. "Sic her, Fido!"
The dog enthusiastically lunged for Barb.
She shrieked. "Oh, my God! What's happening?"
"What's wrong, sweetie?" Jeffrey asked.
"Help!" Barb yelled. The dog clamped onto her apron and tore it from her body. Pete shook his head. Why had he been so crazy about her chest all these years? They'd probably be rated at the very bottom on RateHerRack.com.
"Get me out of here!" shouted Barb.
The three of them flew out the front door like bats out of a bowling alley. Barb and Melinda rushed ahead, and Jeffery hung behind. He held his hand to his ear and mouthed call me. Then he was gone, too. Pete slammed the door behind them.
Pete petted the dog enthusiastically. "And aren't you a good girl!"
Uncle Herman hadn't been crazy after all, thought Pete. He'd stayed away from women and spent his life taking care of beloved pets and working in his garden. "That sounds perfect, doesn't it Fido?"
The ghost at Pete's feet wagged her tail in agreement.