by Leopold Haas
When Coach Tyrone first came to the house, I wasn’t sure it was such a good idea. He charged a lot of money for his services, and no amount of to-ing and fro-ing, or more subtle ploys—like staring open-mouthed into my purse—moved him. Coach stood there in the lounge room, bobbing up and down on the balls of his feet, in the way that tennis players do before they serve. His head, or rather his thick white hair, nearly touched the ceiling.
“I don’t have a degree,” he announced. I wondered if this was a special tactic of his, to inspire pity or perhaps a donation to his kids’ college fund, but Coach’s face was blank. “Everything I know comes from experience.”
“Well,” I stalled, “would you like a seat?”
Coach did not move toward the sofa. Instead, he handed me his business card and started bobbing up and down again. I noticed that the lettering was fairly carved into the card; you could probably read it if you were blind (which I’m not). I turned the card over and frowned. There was nothing there, not a sign that the letters had come through to the other side. I felt vaguely uncomfortable. But as a single mom, I was used to putting such mysteries aside. Coach was going over his lesson plans. I listened to the drill, although it sounded like every other: there was a thirteen week minimum; the customer could cancel at any time after that; all up it would cost thirteen hundred dollars for the thirteen week introductory package; and not a cent more. Coach said that in his business, you get what you pay for, and looked at me in a knowing way, as if I for one, wouldn’t want to mess this up. “You’ll see results. They all do.” Quickly, before I had time to mull it over, and in any case, the question of payment was not exactly to be or not to be, I fetched my pocket book and handed him the first installment in cash.
“Where’s the pup?” Coach demanded, folding the notes into his pocket. He was obviously the type who counted later.
“Is this the first lesson?” I asked.
“Do you want it to be?”
I crept down the hallway towards Puppy’s room. Okay, it was a closet with a tiny bed. It was, however, really very cozy in there, in part because there were no windows: it was more soothing that way. Also, I didn’t want Puppy sleeping in my room. My room was my room, as I told my therapist. “Hmmm…”, he’d said, “have you read Virginia Woolf?” (What did he think this was, a book club?) I really should shop around; find someone less snooty. I snapped on the light. Puppy’s room looked nice and cheery. She didn’t seem to mind that it was full of coats and dresses I hadn’t worn for years, or that I’d soundproofed it with stacks of old shoeboxes and bits of bubble wrap. I kicked a mannikin out of the way, and reached over her bed. There she was, all face and matching fists. I bundled Puppy up in her sheets (as I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember if she was naked or clothed). She was breathing heavily and her little fingers were opening and shutting. I knew, however, it wouldn’t be long before Puppy would wake and start her bawling. I took her to the lounge where Coach Tyrone was waiting, holding her out in front of me, an offering of sorts.
“Hello Puppy!” Coach boomed. He took Puppy from me and lifted her up. I could no longer see Coach’s hands, only my Puppy hovering near the ceiling like a little ghost, with the sheets floating all around her and her face slack and pale.
Coach sure had a voice on him. He looked into Puppy’s face and his stare must have worked its way through her sheets to her skin and right down into her little soul. She started to scream. Her eyes bunched into wrinkled sores and her mouth opened so far I could see her tonsils bunched up like curtains.
“Watch me,” Coach said.
In one swift move, Coach tackled Puppy to the floor and maneuvered her into a sit, with her little legs stuck out in front. The bed sheet was now arranged in toga fashion. Puppy’s face was frozen. She looked startled; unsure of where she was. Her eyes floated around the room, and all the while, her little mouth sucked in air, as if waiting for a single cue to let rip.
“See these!” Coach exclaimed, pointing at her legs. “Like turnips. She’s a strong one.”
“But how did you do that?” I asked. I didn’t care about the turnips. Puppy had never held her silence for more than a second.
Coach held up a finger to silence me. He stood back from Puppy and looked down at her with folded arms. She seemed wary and a new gurgling noise came from her throat. “Good girl,” he soothed.
“We’re going to repeat the move,” Coach said, “and I want you to watch closely, because you’re going to do it next.”
I watched. Coach picked Puppy up and tipped her over so that her eyes flicked open like a little doll’s. She looked down at the carpet. He gave her a little shake (gentle) and poked her in the side. It was pretty mean, I thought. He poked her in the other side, using his thumb as a skewer. Puppy scrunched up her eyes. Her eyes rolled back in an unpleasant way, and she began wailing. Poor Puppy, I thought, and put my hands over my ears. I knew I didn’t have many Tylenol left.
“Sit!” Coach roared. He slam dunked Puppy on the floor and turned out her little legs, just like before. Puppy sat there with her eyes shining and her hands patting the carpet as if she’d landed in a field of clouds.
“Stay!” Coach warned and held up his hand. Puppy stared up at the man. She was perfectly silent. Even her little hands stopped moving.
“Are you ready?”
I was not. I was nervous, and I’ll admit that. Coordination was not one of my natural gifts. I tried to picture the various moves in my mind, but all too soon the pictures turned into a slapstick comedy. I’d just have to wing it. I stepped forward and gathered up little Puppy in my arms.
“Good,” Coach said, “now make sure she’s looking at you.”
I looked into Puppy’s eyes. They were floating around. “Puppy, look at Mommy,” I said.
“Stop,” Coach said. “Say it in a deeper voice. Mean it.”
I coughed. “Puppy.” My voice was even higher. I coughed again and tried to coat my voice with phlegm. “Look at Mommy,” I hacked.
“Better,” Coach said.
“She’s not even looking at me,” I said. “She’s looking at you.”
“Hold her face so that it’s close to yours. Who’s the Mommy?”
I grabbed Puppy’s skull with my hands and yanked it forwards. Puppy blinked. I raised a finger and touched her gingerly in the side, right between her tiny ribs. Puppy started screaming immediately.
“Sit!” I screeched. I bent down and dropped her on the floor. The bed sheets had unraveled and Puppy kicked out her legs, bucking and crying, her whole body oozing out of its shell.
“Sit,” Coach yelled, even though he was standing right beside me. He pushed Puppy back down and forced her two turnip legs outwards. He re-arranged the bed sheet and finished by crossing it over her shoulders, so that once again, she had the infant Roman look. Puppy sat there, silent, her eyes wide and focused on Coach Tyrone.
“She’s good for you,” I said. I could barely disguise the bitterness in my voice.
“It’s not the same, you’re here all the time,” Coach explained. “In thirteen weeks you won’t recognize her, I promise.”
“Come on,” Coach said, “who’s the Mommy?”
I smiled thinly and then we stood there staring down at Puppy. No one spoke. I wondered if I was paying for this too.
Coach broke the ice: “I want you to practice what I showed you today. The sit-stay is the building block of all training. It’s Puppy’s safe space.”
I nodded, “like a demilitarized zone.”
“If that works for you.” I did not like Coach’s tone. Even if he hadn’t counted it, he had taken my money and I felt I deserved a show of respect.
“What I want, Coach,” I said, “is the best for my daughter. I want her to become someone, I mean before someone else tries their hand.” I had to admit, it gave me goosebumps to think that Puppy’s whole life could be shaped, right now. This was, I knew, a fail-safe investment.
It was hard to tell if Coach was taking any of this in. He was bobbing up and down, and his white hair looked thick and wooly, almost ancient. I was satisfied with this. At the door, he handed me a bag of treats and a choke chain, and told me I was to attach the latter to Puppy’s neck and to give a little tug if she played up on our walks. He recommended it for indoor use as well, to accustom Puppy to her new status. He looped the chain around his own neck to show me how it worked. He tightened it and stuck out his tongue to show me the effects. I took the chain and hung it on the hook right next to Puppy’s raincoat.
For two hours after Coach Tyrone had left, the house was perfectly quiet. Puppy sat on the carpet and gurgled over a picture book that her Aunt had bought her. I sat down next to her. Puppy was stabbing her finger at a picture of a lamb. “Would you like me to read?” I asked her sweetly, although I knew the question was not really hers to answer. I pointed at each word so that Puppy could follow along: “This lamb has no name,” I read, “only a number.” “Number,” Puppy screeched. What kind of book was this, I wondered as I turned the page, half-expecting to see a picture of an alter or an abattoir. I saw only the ear of a cow, as Puppy screeched “Number”, and flipped the page back with such force that it ripped.
“Bad Puppy, oh look what you’ve done!” I pointed to her damaged book. “No more treats for you.” Puppy did not look at me. She rocked backwards and forwards over the picture of the lamb with its freshly torn neck, and her eyes shone just like they did for Coach.
I went to the kitchen and returned with the chain. I looped it over Puppy’s neck. “You’re on watch,” I said.
“Number,” Puppy screeched.
“You be quiet, or Mommy will give you a number.” I sat down on the couch, with the silver chain glistening between us.
In the days that followed, I practiced the sit-stay command at hourly intervals. I dressed Puppy in a special jumpsuit and put her treats on the floor where she could see them. Puppy let herself be hoisted into the air and thrown down, she even let me turn her little turnip legs outwards, but she could only keep quiet for a minute. I timed it on my fitness stopwatch. It didn’t matter how many times I repeated the exercise, a minute was all Puppy would give me. I packed up the treats and put Puppy back in the closet.
The next day, I felt inspired. I took down the chain and put it around Puppy’s neck. She grabbed hold of it with her tiny fingers as if it were a precious object.
“Heel up,” I said, pulling gently on the chain. It was our first outing in public. Puppy waddled along with her fingers on the chain looking very pleased with herself. The sun was out. The ‘cottage garden’ (which was no garden at all, just a strip of weeds near the basement window) was grey-green and seemed to blur as I looked at it. The car looked especially dirty. I frowned. Puppy was gurgling and making farmyard sounds, although, as she well knew, we lived in an urban area.
We were passing by a fancy set of brownstones toward the end of the street, and I didn’t care for Puppy’s tone. “That’s enough Puppy,” I snapped.
I tugged hard on the chain. “Bad Puppy!”
Puppy looked up at me and I saw that her fingers were caught in the chain. She screwed up her eyes.
“Oh dear, poor Puppy.” I gingerly loosened the chain and inspected her fingers. They were covered in thick red marks. I looked up and down the street; no-one was around. “Put your hands in your pockets,” I told her, “that way, they’ll be safe.” Puppy sniffed.
“Okay, how about a little treat?” I held out the bag. “Puppy’s choice!” Puppy put her hand in, grabbed a handful of sticky treats and popped them in her mouth.
I pulled the bag away. “That’s enough,” I yelled.
Puppy put her hands back on the chain and started waddling forwards. She really was very greedy. I wondered if the treats were a good idea. The chain seemed altogether more effective. Puppy was now a good yard in front of me. I had to run to catch up.
“Puppy, stop!” I panted.
The chain between us rattled along. Puppy clambered towards a gate, and then stopped. “Naughty Puppy,” I said, primarily because she was busy exchanging gurgles with a little boy I’d never seen before. The boy was leash-free, and probably not even vaccinated. I stepped back and tried to pull Puppy away. It was too late, the boy was breathing all over Puppy and touching the welts in her hands.
“Where’s your Mommy?” I asked the boy.
He pointed behind him to a middle aged woman talking on a cell. She was still a distance away and didn’t seem to be moving. I waved, to get the woman’s attention. She was mildly overweight, the type that usually respond with immediate compliance. The woman waved back but showed no signs of ending her call.
“Heel up,” I seethed, and pulled on the leash. Puppy winced. She put her fingers back on the chain and the boy stuck his fingers over hers. It seemed to be some kind of game, although it could also be a critique, I wouldn’t put it past them. “Puppy, wanna treat?” I said, rattling the bag.
“You,” I said to the boy, “let go of my daughter!”
The boy tugged harder on the chain.
I leant forward over the boy, as if I were about to hug him. “Go on”, I said, “and fuck off.” My voice sounded sweet and rather frightening. The boy froze. Puppy started to yelp.
Swearing at a boy. What was that? I fumbled in my bag and found a cigarette and a rusty lighter. I thought the habit would help deepen my voice for Coach Tyrone. I had the thing lit, which was not easy with one hand, just as I saw his mother finally coming towards us. She was wearing peep-toe heels and her hair was still damp. She seemed to be reading something on her phone, as her lips were moving, and she was having trouble walking. “Puppy!” I rasped through a veil of smoke, “come on!” I yanked on the chain. Puppy gasped and made a few clumsy steps forwards. The boy suddenly dropped his hand from the chain. It was hard to tell whether he’d seen his mother or whether Puppy’s movement startled him. I took another drag. “Good boy,” I said, blowing the smoke up into the air. “Nothing happened, right?” The boy was not listening.
I turned to Puppy. “Let’s go meet this nice lady.” I was pleased to see that Puppy’s hands were in her pockets. When the boy’s mother approached, however, it was clear that the time for introductions had passed. She barely registered us, looking up only briefly from her phone to see her boy scraping his hand along a concrete wall.
“Rickaaaay,” she squawked, “don’t do that. Rickaaaay, what did I say?”
The voice. She sounded South African or Australian (whatever, one of those off the map countries).
Nevertheless, Puppy and I turned around to watch. Ricky was now running around the corner, en route to the co-op, grazing the shop windows with his dirty hand. The mother was running after him, her heels cracking on the concrete. She would, I felt sure, never catch up.
“Just another clueless mom,” I said to Puppy, “probably breastfeeds her son at the school gate.” Puppy sat perfectly still, panting in her jumpsuit. For the first time, I felt proud of the training I’d signed up for: Puppy was really progressing and I had to admit that her gums were exceptionally pink. I loosened Puppy’s leash, and blew a ring of smoke in no particular direction. It was so perfect, a bird could fly through it. I pointed out the ring to Puppy and she looked up at me with shining eyes. “Lovely Puppy,” I said, while I shoved the butt in someone’s mail box.
Over the next few weeks, I became more confident with the training regime. It was strange, but I almost looked forward to Coach Tyrone’s visits. When he came to the door, Puppy galloped up to greet him and dropped to the floor showing her belly. Coach bent down and poked her in the side, or pulled on her little turnip legs. Puppy gurgled with pleasure. She was always on her best behavior for Coach, and in his presence, she even began to obey me, too. I tried not to judge Puppy for being so sexist. Earlier on, Coach had stuck up a list of learning outcomes on the fridge. Each week, he made me put a tick next to the outcome I had achieved, and asked me to note any obstacles that I had overcome along the way. I didn’t feel comfortable exposing myself, especially to a non-college graduate, so I wrote things like, “faced down my fear of projecting, and learned how to speak with force, using Coach’s unique diaphragm exercises” (I did not mention the cigarettes). Coach initialed my ticks and comments, and promised a certificate of achievement at the end of the course.
By week ten, I saw that Puppy was changing. I wanted to tell my therapist, or my sister, but I knew they’d want proof. I made my own notes of her progress and my own (modest) role in it. I had learned so many things: how to use my body as a physical block against Puppy; how to look away so that Puppy couldn’t read my face; and how to get her to pee on command. I had even learned how to knee her (gently) in the chest when she made inappropriate demands, like wanting to be picked up, when, as everyone knew, she had two little legs of her own. When all else failed, there was always the closet. Puppy went to the closet with a single command, “Cupboardy”. When I said “cupboardy”, Puppy ran to the closet, climbed up onto her bed and waited there without moving until I called (never more than a few hours later). When she was officially released from the “cupboardy” I took her outside to pee and then gave her a treat.
When I dropped in to see my therapist she was allowed to read the book that her Aunt had given her in the backseat of the car. Unlike Coach, my therapist was disinclined to ask me leading questions (or follow up ones) and seemed content to let me rattle on. Sometimes (due to my low self-esteem) I had the feeling he was using me as a case-study for his latest article, so I tried to keep things super dull. Everything I concealed was for Puppy, and this made it all so worthwhile. I told my therapist about the great book I was reading (I had read the title); about my run in with my bitchface of a sister (and the awful book she had given my daughter); and then about how good I felt about my life, despite everything, now that I’d come to accept I was a single mother by choice. “You know,” I said, “I think I’m going to get that on a bumper sticker—if it doesn’t affect the resale value of the car.” (I was careful, during my narrative, not to mention Coach Tyrone or Puppy’s training). “That’s it!” I summed up brightly, after describing my new washing machine. The therapist opened his eyes. “Wow. That’s great,” he said, and nodded in a vague way, before signing off on my weekly prescription. Two-hundred dollars later, when I came back to the car, I found Puppy sitting in the driver’s seat. She had the book propped up against the steering wheel and was poking the lamb in the side. “Oh, poor Number,” I said. “Don’t hurt Number.” Puppy slowly and deliberately ripped out the page, screwed up the picture of the lamb in her little fist and threw it out the window.
I’d almost reached the end of my thirteen week lesson plan, when Coach said it was time to take Puppy to the local park. It was good for Puppy to socialize, he told me. But only up to a point. The thing to know was that other kids were the enemy, other kids would try and turn Puppy against me. I nodded and tried to cut in. I shared the story of our meeting with the little boy. Coach put up his hand.
“That’s one little boy,” he said. ‘What I mean is a whole gang of them: a sandpit full of toddlers with snot.”
I nodded. Coach was right about the snot. I packed some anti-bacterial handwash. We set out together taking turns leading Puppy. The sun was shining and Coach’s hair was almost biblical in its whiteness. I tried to focus on the moment. How normal we must look, the three of us. But when I concentrated on Puppy or Coach, I kept falling out of the picture.
We got to the park. There was a rotunda café at the entrance to the park, serving coffee and cake. A few joggers thumped past. As soon as we hit grass, Coach put Puppy in a sit. She wore a long t-shirt, emblazoned with the number five, and her little turnip legs were covered in long, white socks. Perhaps it was a mistake to let Puppy dress herself, as I couldn’t for the life of me remember if she had anything on under her t-shirt. I wondered if that was illegal (there should be a sign). Puppy stroked the grass. I noticed that there were only two kids in the play area, accompanied by their nannies. Puppy was panting. Coach removed her leash (gently) and, after what seemed like forever, gave her the command: “Go!”
Puppy went. She bounded across the grass, and down the path towards the play area. Her little ears were back and her socks were falling down. She did not look back, not once. I held my breath. “Five minutes,” Coach said, “exactly five minutes.” I took out my stop-watch. We watched Puppy pass through the gate and approach the swing set. The two kids were no longer swinging, just sitting there, kicking the dirt. “Puppy go play,” Coach enthused. Puppy stared at the kids. The kids stared at the dirt. Puppy looked around, she seemed entirely lost. The help were sitting together on a bench reading a magazine. “Shouldn’t we go in?” I asked, “she’s all alone.” Coach put his hand up. For Puppy had started running. Something like Spring had entered her. She galloped past the swing-set, the slippery slide, the pogo stick and the monkey bars, clambered over the stepping stones, wound through the maze, and pushed past the merry-go-round with its decorated horses, until her little lungs heaved and the wind seemed full of her panting and she came to a sudden stop.
“Puppy,” Coach yelled. “Go play.”
Puppy looked over at Coach. It was hard to read her face, it was like staring at a stone, but soon she picked up her legs and slowly trotted over to the swing-set. She stood there with her arms folded, just like Coach. The two kids slipped out of the swings and ran over to the help. Puppy didn’t sit down in one of the swings, she just stood there, her little shoulders going up and down.
“I thought there was a sand-pit somewhere,” Coach said by way of apology.
I looked at the stop-watch. Barely three minutes had passed.
“Maybe it’s good for her to learn that sometimes people don’t want to play,” I said.
“This lesson,” Coach said, in a rather thick voice, “is on play.”
I looked at the stopwatch. “Shouldn’t we call her in now?”
Coach looked at Puppy, standing there, with her turnip legs sticking out of the dirt, and her fallen down socks.
“Do what you like,” he said.
The stopwatch clicked.
“Puppy,” I yelled, “come!”
I watched as Puppy slowly turned to face me. Her face was blank.
“Come on Puppy, come to Mommy!”
Puppy pulled on her t-shirt.
“Come!” I screeched. I rattled the treat bag so she could hear what was on offer.
Puppy stood very still, and her eyes seemed to narrow. All I could see was her fingers poking at her side, right through her t-shirt. The patch bearing the number five, ballooned outwards, until I couldn’t make out her shape underneath.
“Puppy,” I moaned, “don’t hurt Number!”
I shouldn’t have said that.
I turned to glare at Coach. I almost stumbled on the grass and when I looked down, I saw the choke chain glinting in all that sick green. Coach had gone; the stopwatch was all hot in my hand.