On his last day of work, Nate boxed up his Blues Brothers figurines and posters from his cube, collected his severance check, and proceeded home, where he got drunk in front of the television.
He didn’t recall having landed in bed, but that was where he woke up, wearing the previous day’s plaid boxers and “All your base are belong to us” t-shirt. He cupped his hand under the faucet and drank some water from it, then brushed the fuzz off his teeth.
“The end of an era,” he said to himself. “Fuck.”
He pulled on yesterday’s jeans, pocket checked, and left for the 7-Eleven to buy Gatorade.
A middle-aged guy and his wife and their suitcases were already in the elevator on the way back up. “Y’all could use another elevator in this place.”
Nate smiled weakly and nodded at the man, whose baseball cap said “Wiener Dog Races, Boda, Texas.”
If he felt better, he thought, he’d have asked about them.
The good news was that, between severance and savings and not even counting EI, Nate figured he had a year easy to figure out his next move. The bad news was that the days stretched out before him endlessly, without real interruptions. The milk would expire and the bills would come due, but it didn’t matter when he was awake and when he wasn’t, nor how he filled his days.
He’d spent the past eight years working his way up the games industry ladder, starting in the large cadre of testers. He stuck out the insane overtime and cyclical boredom until he got to be, at long last, an artist. This was what he’d suffered for. And in the beginning, he loved it. But the work became routine again over time, and as the layoffs started, it became clear he was still just a small cog in a very large wheel. Management ordered up meetings in which they showed organizational charts without his job on them and talked cheerily about business needs and future plans. For once, Nate considered himself lucky to be single; many of the guys had families to support.
Lucky, but lonely.
With that thought, Nate crawled back under the covers.
The second time Nate got up, he flicked on the TV and made himself a pot of coffee, scrambled eggs, and toast. He sat down at his computer with his breakfast, checked his e-mail, and fired up World of Warcraft. He and his guildmates played into the early hours of the next morning, stopping only for bio breaks and to pay the pizza guy.
He occupied the better part of the week this way, but by Thursday, the novelty was wearing off. Low on groceries and starved for fresh air and self-respect, he showered, shaved for the first time since he’d been let go, and left to run errands.
At the library, he wandered the stacks and picked out some fiction, some philosophy, some photography. It was midday, and with everyone else at work, it was peaceful and quiet. At the grocery, Nate bought fruit and veggies to atone for the sins of the week, and plotted a big pot of chili.
Close to home, he ran into the cute neighbor with the Dachshunds, one brown, one spotted like a Guernsey cow. He bent down to pet them. The brown one was cautious, but the cow-spotted one wagged his tail happily as he scratched it behind the ears.
“Day off?” his neighbor asked.
“No, I got laid off last week.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“It’ll work out,” Nate shrugged, sparing her his misery. “I should get my groceries in, catch you later.”
Nate’s dreams that night were chaotic, but one scene stood out clearly – he was in the middle of a muddy track trying to catch wiener dogs. He couldn’t remember why, but the dream had a feeling of urgency. What could possibly have been so important about catching wiener dogs? Dreams were funny things.
When he sat down at his computer with breakfast and checked his Facebook, one status update caught his eye.
“Scott Samson ‘s sister has a litter of brown Dachshund pups for sale. 9 wks old.”
Christ. This is getting fucking ridiculous, Nate thought, and put his head in his hands. He’d often thought about getting a dog, but his work schedule had prohibited it. But now. . .
“How much?” he typed back.
The next day, Nate walked out of Scott’s sister’s house holding a shivering brown boy pup inside his jacket. The pup had chosen him; when Nate sat on the floor to look at the litter, this little dog wobbled over curiously, sniffed Nate’s leg, and then began playing tug-of-war with his jeans.
“It’s ok,” he told the pup. “Everything will be ok.”
On the way home, Nate stopped at the pet store. It was a bit much to carry in his pack and one-handed, but he bought everything he thought he would need. Everyone smiled at him and cooed at the little brown eyes and sharp nose that peered out from his jacket.
Nate’s world had just taken a turn towards the friendly.
When Nate got inside, he put his new pup down to explore.
“This is home, bud. How do you like it?” The pup waddled around the apartment, cautiously sniffing everything.
Nate shook his head. The whole universe seemed to be telling him he needed a wiener dog. It was a little like God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. It made no sense. Abraham must have looked up at God and thought, however it came out in Hebrew, “Are you shitting me?”
That was it. Abraham. “Hey, what do you think of that name?” he asked the pup, who’d claimed a stray dirty sock as his first toy. “Hammy, c’mere Hammy.” He seemed torn between staying with the sock and going to his new owner.
Nate took the sock away and scooped Hammy up. He picked up the remote, lay down on the couch, and stood Hammy on his chest. “What do you think? It’s not so bad here.”
He stroked Hammy and scratched behind his ears. Hammy’s eyes began to blink and he soon fell asleep in a little ball in the middle of Nate’s chest.
For the first few days, Hammy avoided the fleece-lined pet bed Nate had brought home, preferring to curl up on Nate’s dirty t-shirts, but once Nate put one in Hammy’s bed, he happily began snoozing there. When he wasn’t sleeping, Hammy was underfoot. He liked to tug at Nate’s pants leg and nibble his toes with his sharp puppy teeth. Nate had to be careful not to squish him as he stood washing dishes or cooking dinner. The days were filled with trips outside, attempts at housetraining, and, once Hammy was finished with his shots, socializing with the other dogs and their owners. Nate enjoyed these excursions, especially as the weather warmed. Hammy was, true to his breed, stubborn and fearless, and, true to his name, a comedian. He lifted his leg so high when he peed that he often nearly fell over. “He can’t help it. He’s got a Napoleonic complex,” Nate joked.
“He’s like a little cartoon character,” Jess, the girl with the two weenie dogs, told him one day. Later, as Hammy slept, Nate pulled out his long-neglected sketchbook and pencils and drew a napping cartoon Hammy.
He was so pleased with himself that more drawings soon followed: Hammy chewing on socks, Hammy singing, Hammy’s ear dangling from his head as he tilted it, questioning whether he’d get a piece of Nate’s turkey sandwich. Nate began drawing other things too. Some days, he sat on a park bench with Hammy’s leash tied to the leg and caricatured the people in the park.
One day, as Nate sat on that park bench, doing what he’d initially gone to art school for, it suddenly struck him as funny that he had spent years working up to the level of anonymity his previous job had offered. Games shipped without him. Nobody read the credits, and no one cared anyway after they’d exhausted the game’s 30-70 hours of playtime. No one gave a rat’s ass if he wasn’t the one who designed the skin of an orc or the scales of a dragon.
Nate felt free. Maybe he didn’t know what he was going to do to pay the bills once the money ran out, but he wasn’t going back into games. Couldn’t. The idea of never going back filled him with a child-like glee.
“Whaddya think, Hammy? What shall we do next?”
Hammy just tilted his head and looked at him.
A few days later, Jess stopped by the park with her dogs, Frank and Oscar. “Hammy! Hi Hammy!” Hammy wagged his thin little tail furiously, and Jess’s dogs strained at their leashes.
“Plotting world domination?” Jess asked.
“Heh, no. Just sketching a bit.”
“You sure draw a lot. Can I see?”
Jess tied her dogs up close to Hammy and sat down beside Nate. He handed her his sketchbook and she began paging through it backwards.
“These are amazing,” Jess said. “Oh my god, that’s the crazy old guy with the shih-tzu!”
Nate laughed, and he felt his face flushing. “Yeah, that’s him.”
Jess pored over his drawings.
“You know,” she said, closing and handing back Nate’s sketchbook, “I have a friend who publishes children’s books. You should talk to her. I think she’d love these.”
“Children’s books? You mean like See Spot Run?”
Jess laughed. “They’ve come a long way since we were kids. My niece and nephew have the coolest books. Are you on Facebook? I’ll friend you and then I’ll try to arrange something, if you want.”
“Yeah, that’d be great.” Nate and Jess exchanged last names.
Jess got up and untied Frank and Oscar. “Bye Nate, bye Hammy.”
“Thanks, see you later,” Nate said, stretching his arm across the back of the bench.
Nate had never considered himself a sappy guy, but the idea warmed him. He imagined his drawings in a book, imagined it being read in classrooms and libraries to squirmy little bodies, imagined it preceding kisses goodnight, imagined little fingers turning the pages and following the words, sounding them out. The idea had never entered his mind before, but it felt right. He looked down at Hammy, who tilted his head quizzically.
“And a wiener dog shall lead them,” Nate chuckled. “C’mon, Hammy, let’s go home.”