The Airing of the Grievances
by Virginia Wilkerson
Festivus is old now, in human years; I looked it up online. I got him when I was seven, and he’s nine now: officially a senior dog. He spends most of his time dozing under the kitchen table, or sunning himself on the back porch. Still, Festivus is my friend – often my only friend – and I don’t want him to suffer in his old age.
I remember the day I got him. I was curled up in a corner of our beat-up, ugly couch, watching Bill Nye the Science Guy on TV. He was talking about bridges, and I was so absorbed in the screen that I didn’t hear Pop drive up. When I heard him bust through the front door, I suddenly realized that I still had my sneakers on, curled beneath my skinny frame on the couch. No shoes on the couch. Probably a rule left over from when Mom was still around.
That day, my father didn’t notice my transgression; he was stoked about something, a big grin on his face. I remember how weird it seemed for Pop to come in from working all day in the brutal South Florida sun without his usual bad-tempered grimace.
“Come here, Riley – you need ta see whut I got in the truck.” And he hurried back outside to the narrow concrete driveway, with me close behind.
“Look there, boy,” he pointed inside the cab of the truck, and I saw Festivus for the first time. He was brown and white, with a black patch around his left eye. As soon as Pop opened the door of the truck, Festivus jumped out and ran to me, wedging himself between my short seven-year-old legs.
“You been pesterin’ me to get you a dog, boy – so there he is. You like ‘im?’
I didn’t know what to say. Of course, I liked him. Ever since we had read a story in school about a boy with a faithful dog, I had wanted one more than anything. The dog in the story was named Buster; I just knew that if I had a faithful dog named Buster, I could win a prize at the science fair like the boy in the story.
“His name’s Festivus,” Pop said, snorting with laughter. “The festival for the rest of us, ya know?”
I had no idea what Pop was talking about. Festivus. What a lame name for a boy’s dog. Pop kept laughing, lighting a cigarette at the same time. I could feel Festivus shaking a little as he stood between my legs.
Desire made me more brave than usual. “Could I maybe call him Buster?”
Pop answered, “No, boy. I told you his name is Festivus. He won’t like you if you try to call him somethin’ else.”
Now, at sixteen, I wish I had not believed him. But on that day, I did. I actually thought Pop knew what he was talking about.
“Okay,” I said. And then to the dog, my new friend, “Come on, Festivus, I’ll show you my room.”
After that day, Festivus slept in a corner of my tiny bedroom, curled up on a blanket I found in the hall closet. I never did win a prize in the science fair, although I came in second in 7th grade once I was able to buy my own materials. But it wasn’t until last year that I finally found out about the festival for the rest of us. Poor Festivus: named after a stupid Seinfeld episode. My friend Miranda introduced me to the TV show when I started stopping by her house some days on the way home from school.
It was Miranda who introduced me to sex, too - there on her bed, on top of this ridiculous blanket covered with kittens. I don’t know how to describe it, but it was hot, and awkward, and disappointing – all at the same time. After, I had the strongest urge to put my clothes back on as fast as I could. Miranda, with her spikey short hair even more spikey, lay on her side and watched me.
I didn’t stop by so much after that, but we still hang out at school and all. I suppose if I needed her, Miranda would still be my friend. Anyway, a couple of years ago, I finally found out that Pop had purposely given my dog, my best buddy, a stupid, laughable name.
Like I said, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I guess Pop would’ve been happier without a kid under foot. Still, I had a place to stay and food on the table, and he never did hit me. That’s one thing I can say.
So me and Festivus are sitting on the couch in front of the TV, waiting for the sound of Pop’s truck in the driveway. It’s the same house we were in when I was seven and Festivus came to live with us – that same truck, too. Both Festivus and Pop’s truck are showing their age.
When Pop comes in, I notice his cough even worse than this morning. He’s getting too old to work on Florida rooftops; I suppose when I graduate in another two years he will get a tiny apartment or a rented room so he doesn’t have to work so hard to pay for this house.
Festivus raises his head up at the sound of Pop’s cough. For some reason, the dog has always liked Pop, even though the man couldn’t care less about him.
I get up off the couch and go to the fridge to get Pop a beer. Maybe then he will listen about the vet. “Thanks, boy,” he says, and plops down in his particular chair.
I wait several minutes to let him work on his beer. Then, “Pop, Festivus isn’t lookin’ so good. I think he might be sick.”
Pop gives a sharp laugh, dribbling beer down his chin. “Sick? The mutt’s just old. Dog like that, they don’t live more than seven, eight years. How old is that thing, anyway?”
This isn’t going well. “Well, he’s nine now. I know he’s old. But maybe there’s some medicine he needs…”
“Listen, boy. There’s medicine I need, too, and I’m the head of this household. I got you a dog, like you wanted, and I’ve fed ‘im all these years – and you, too. He don’t need no medicine.”
Why did I even try? I know the answer: because Festivus, named after a stupid fake holiday involving feats of strength and an aluminum pole, is my friend. I don’t want him to suffer.
I instantly realize that I just said that last thought out loud. “I don’t want him to suffer.”
Pop picks up this train of thought and jumps on board. “Of course, not, Riley. The beast shouldn’t suffer! You know what? I can fix that real quick.”
Oh my God. I try to deny in my head what I fear is happening. Festivus seems to feel it, too. He gets up and walks to the glass patio doors, as if he wants to go out to pee. I get up, too – to let him out. To let him escape.
Pop reaches a weathered hand to open the sliding door and Festivus slips through, trotting into the back yard and toward the wooden privacy fence at the back. Beyond that fence is one of the many canals running through the suburbs of South Florida. I know this, Festivus knows it – and so does Pop. I go to the open door and watch helplessly while the man opens the gate for the dog and they both disappear beyond the fence.
Suddenly, I can’t stand being helpless any more; I want to take care of my dog no matter what I have to do. I run out into the yard and to the back gate. Just as I get there, resting one hand on the wooden barrier, I see Pop raise one arm and aim. Festivus turns his head and looks beyond Pop, training his old brown eyes directly on me. His boy.
One shot rings out in the steamy afternoon, and the dog’s body raises off the ground with the impact, then falls into the muddy grey water of the canal.