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My Dead Dog

By tomsoterwriting - Posted on 18 April 2018

sites/default/files/CHARLIE.jpg woman who knew me from Sunday Night Improv, my  weekly improv jam, had heard that I was a writer and asked me if I would come to a reading on Tuesday night at a show she ran called Rough and Ready.

“A reading of something you wrote?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” she said quickly. “I had hoped you would read one of your stories – like the ones you put on the internet.”

 I remembered when I was a kid in grade school, I often took great pride in my ability to read stories out loud in class. Many of my classmates spoke in a monotone – there was no life to their delivery. I had been good then, but as the years passed, I lost my touch, and would find myself reading too fast. “Slow down,” I’d say to myself.  Nonetheless, I was flattered by this young woman’s offer, she was pretty, and I wasn’t doing anything Tuesday night, so I accepted.

As the date approached, I wondered what to read. After considering many pieces, I settled on “Charlie’s Gift,” a memoir of my late dog, Charlie, a cocker spaniel. I read it aloud at home and found it went way over the ten-minute allotment I had been given for speaking. I went through the story and cut it brutally, but still managing to leave in some of the funniest and/or the most poignant bits.

On Tuesday, not knowing what to expect, I arrived early. I was perhaps a little nervous but felt confident about my piece. The woman who had invited me was there, but was busy organizing things, and gave me a perfunctory hello. She told me I was No. 5 in the line-up and showed me where to sit. The event was taking place in a loft space and all the speakers were seated to the right of the audience. In plain view, I thought, so if you bomb, you have to sit there for the rest of the show, a failure on display.

But why think that way? “Charlie’s Gift” was going to be a hit.

Then the show began. The first person up wasn’t a reader at all. He was Matt Higgins, a tall, lanky improviser I had known for years. He had appeared in Sunday Night Improv, was a member of a cutting edge improv group called Burn Manhattan, and had offered clever comments about improvisation in my documentary Sense and Nonsense: Lessons from Improvisation.

Matt was electric. The idea behind his one-man show was that he was waiting for the other two members of his improv group to arrive. While he was waiting, he got two calls on his cell phone. The other two people weren’t going to show up – so Matt played their parts in various games. It was all a big goof but Matt was terrific and the audience – a mixture of people ranging from what seemed like twenty-year-olds to eighty-year-olds – went wild.

I got a little worried.

Next up was a nondescript young man who seemed to be familiar to the audience. “I’m back with Chapter 5,” he said, holding up a manuscript. There were hoots and hollers from the audience. He then went into a halting summary of the first five chapters. The audience ate it up. Obviously, I thought, this guy has a lot of fans.

I don’t remember much about his piece, except that there was a vividly described scene of two people making love on a kitchen table at home,two people making love on a kitchen table at a restaurant, andtwo people making love in a bathroom. Did I say they were all vividly described, with a lot of colorful language that rhymed with “duck.” When he finished, the crowd cheered.

I was a little more worried.

The next two pieces didn’t help my anxiety any. They were equally raunchy, filled with sex, drugs, and sex, and I began wondering if I could make a graceful exit. All this raunchy stuff and I just had a sentimental piece to read about my little dead dog. How mortifying!

My turn arrived. I went up to the podium. There was complete silence. Not even a cough. I cleared my throat and held up a picture of my pet. “This is my dog,” I said, holding up a picture of him, as though I was at some sort of bizarre show and tell event, which, in a way, I was. Some people tittered as I began reading.

“Charlie was the family dog. But he was widely considered to be my dog,” I read, trying to slow down. “He joined our family in the spring of 1972, when I was still living at home. Long after I had moved out, however, I still came by and took him for long walks in the park. He was always ecstatic when he saw me, and he jumped up and down, with his tongue hanging out of his mouth, his eyes glowing with happiness. If I looked at it objectively, however, Charlie got excited when most people came by to call, and he usually seemed excited in much the same way.”

A few people laughed. Maybe I should improvise a sex scene in the story, I thought. I didn’t and kept reading. After about ten minutes or so, I reached the closing paragraphs, which invariably caused me to choke up: “On the bus ride to the veterinarian, I agonized about the decision: should I or shouldn’t I [kill him, even though he was suffering]? How could I order the trusting little dog’s death?

“Ultimately, however, it was a decision I didn’t have to make. For Charlie, just moments before I arrived, stood up straight and tall, let out one yelp, and then collapsed in a heap. Dead. He apparently didn’t suffer much – and I always think that he didn’t want me to suffer much, either. For after a lifetime of my taking care of him, Charlie had done his best to give me one final gift, and he took care of me.”

I read the last sentence with tears in my eyes, and my voice broke. I thought people were a little embarrassed by my emotions, and my reading ended with polite applause.

What a fool I was, I said to myself, in a daze as I sat there on display while the next reading began. I sat through the remaining four readings and then went to the backroom to thank my hostess before I left. She greeted me warmly and said with enthusiasm, “What a great piece! So funny! So touching!” I thanked her (though I felt she was just being polite). And then the audience members came in, blocking my exit. Suddenly, I was at a party – a post-show reception.

An elderly woman pigeonholed me, gushing about the story. “I know how you feel,” she said. “So beautifully captured!” Another woman cornered me: “My dog passed recently. It’s heartbreaking. You seemed so upset. When did your dog die?” If I told her Charlie had died over thirty years ago, she might wonder about my tears – and my mental state, so I replied, “Not long ago,” and then wondered how closely this woman had been listening. Didn’t I say at the top of the story that Charlie had died in 1982?

But, I thought, as person after person came up to congratulate me, that was nitpicking. “Charlie’s Gift” was a hit.

The manager of the event came up to me.

“So,” she said, “what are you going to read next week?”

I had no idea. Maybe something about Sally, my dead cat?


from THIS STORY OF YOURS, available from Amazon