Nathan Alling Long
Yes, she was an alcoholic, but that’s not the point—not exactly. She only named her Pitbull “Sixpack” because she’d finished a six-pack and was driving home in the rain and somehow still had the wherewithal to stop the car in time when the drenched, emaciated dog appeared in her headlights.
Or maybe it was that she saw him on the road as she was walking home from the liquor store, having already lost her license, and set the six-pack down to pick him up and carry him home, and by the time she made a bed of old blankets for him, gave him water and cooked hamburger, then went back to that spot in the road, someone had walked off with her beer, so Sixpack reminded her how little it can cost to bring love into your life.
Or was it that the pitbull came to her one day without a collar, and when he rolled over and offered his belly, she scratched it, her boyfriend at the time got offended and pulled off his T-shirt to show off his chest, and she laughed and said, “I’ll take this sixpack any day.”
It doesn’t really matter. Besides, stories get blurred with enough time, Milwaukee’s Best, and Jim Beam. And now it’s a few years later, a few boyfriends later, and she’s car-camping at a state park with Sixpack and her soon-to-be ex. It’s only after they drink three-fourths of a case, get in a huge fight, and the ranger comes by and threatens to kick them out, that she realizes her dog—that one thing that keeps shining in her life, despite dead-end jobs, dead engine cars, and deadbeat boyfriends—is missing.
She traces the perimeter of the campsite, calling out his name in a low voice, “Sixpack! Sixpack!” She doesn’t want to draw the ranger out again, because, of course, dogs aren’t allowed in the park off leash.
Instead, a pretty, young woman with clean clothes and a new car and a handsome boyfriend who is grilling them steaks, comes over and says, smiling, “What? Have you lost your beer?”
“No,” she says, “I’ve lost my dog.”
But her boyfriend is probably finishing off the last beers now, so in a way, she has lost her beer. And she sees that, to this woman, with her shiny car and her shiny boyfriend, she probably sounds drunk enough to think her six pack of beer might come back to her if she calls it.
So she walks on, whispering, “Sixpack,” though now she wonders why anything would ever come back to her when she didn’t even have the sense to give a proper name.
It started as a bump right at the base of my spine—a cyst I figured, or perhaps a swelling from when I’d fallen a while back. But it kept growing until it broke through the skin one restless night, and I felt it, a raw nub of cartilage. Within a couple weeks, it had grown an inch, and I could feel fine hairs covering the skin.
I was worried and could no longer pretend that it would just go away. What if it were cancer or some creature that had gotten inside me?
Relax, I told myself. Then I saw it finally one day in the mirror, wriggling behind me as though it had a mind of its own. I couldn’t believe it. I tried to pin it down, but it slipped out of my grasp.
I knew then that it wasn’t a disease or infestation. It was a part of me. My first thought was just to hide it and hope it would go away. I went through my closet to find clothes that would cover up the thing—loose pants and bulky shirts. I didn’t want people at work to see it, to ask me about it. I often wore my loose knit cotton sweater, though it was summer.
Over the months, as it grew, I tried pressing the thing up along my spine, then I tried pinning it down, between my legs, or wrapping in around my body with Ace bandages, but it twitched and tried to break free. I can’t tell you how embarrassing it was when the end loosened the bandage and the thing started twitching in the front of my pants.
At the end of the year, it was over a foot long and I decided I had to do something about it. I stood before the mirror naked, watching the thing flip to the right and then to the left. A part of me admired it, and I even felt excited by how I could make it wag at different speeds. For a moment, I imagined showing it off, making clothes tailored to fit it, with a small hole in back so that it could move freely behind me. But who was I kidding? People would laugh at me, run away, or worse.
I considered cutting it off myself and trying to simply return to my normal life. But what would I say about the scar? And what if it grew back? I wondered too if this were the start of some larger transformation, if somehow my body was supposed to do this. Maybe there were others like me; maybe I wasn’t alone. I opened up a private browser and searched the internet, but I only found images of costumes and articles about actors from Cats.
I decided finally to call my doctor—though I considered calling a vet.
As I waited for someone to pick up, I tried to imagine sitting there on the crinkly paper of the examination table, the thing sticking out of my flimsy gown. What would I say? What would the doctor say?
A part of me knew that I didn’t need a doctor. What I needed was to accept that this was the way my body was. But that wasn’t so easy.
The receptionist came on then and asked my name and date of birth. She looked up my information then nonchalantly said, “And what’s the reason for your visit?”
“I have, I have…” I stuttered.
“Yes?” she said.
I lowered the phone from my ear and stood silently in my living room. After a moment, I hung up. I knew that, more than anything, saying the word would make it true.
Nathan Alling Long’s work appears on NPR and in various publications, including Witness, The Commuter, QU, and Best of Microfiction 2020. His collection of fifty short fictions, The Origin of Doubt, was selected as a 2019 Lambda Literary Award finalist. He grew up in a log cabin in rural Maryland and now lives in Philadelphia.