Phantom Poodles

Fiction by Laura Chester
Forward the music (a), 2023, by Noel McKenna. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist.

When we enter the dim-lit cave of the therapist I am ready to sacrifice my soul in order to save our marriage. The place is so dark she can’t see our poodles who jump up on the couch between my husband and me.

We are here because Peter has become anorexic. I didn’t realize it had gotten so bad, because, similar to the dogs that rest between us, he likes to remain invisible, and hides his condition even from himself.

The poodles, like Peter, are dead-leaf-colored—the main reason we chose this particular breed. But unlike Peter they are forward and needy. At home they crawl up on the sofa between us where they bark at the video dogs. Animals on the screen seem alive to them, just as Peter seems alive to the therapist now.

If Peter were to waste completely away, the poodles might still come and lean on him, lending him their weight, but he doesn’t like to feel them getting too close. He doesn’t like their phantom breath on him.

The therapist uses phrases like: Blind Spots and Thank you for asking. She tells us we must do exactly as she says, and the poodles begin to get anxious.

Peter confesses, rather timidly, that he no longer cares for my cooking.

Before I can open my mouth, the poodles start making a ruckus. They protest that they love everything that I make.

The Buddha-bodied therapist hulks into her chair and draws up her legs so the poodles can’t mark them. This therapy cave smells like a dog run. “The trouble with you is,” she looks directly at me, but at this point I’m thinking about something else and miss her point entirely.

She tells Peter that I’ll never understand his palate— the subtleties of his sensate self—how he could have been a sage in some other world, where he might have discerned the seventeen ingredients in some savory sauce, though he sits on his therapy cushion now holding both nostrils shut.

Does she know he refuses to even trade bites when we go out for dinner?

“You must cultivate culinary compassion,” she continues.

Try compassion on yourself, bark the poodles.

Does she realize that Peter is not a normal human being any more than the poodles are regular dogs? She obviously sees herself inside the invisible fence he’s constructed for us, telling him how he must have the patience of a saint, one who merely subsists on a nibble from a Host once a day, every evening.

Peter quietly excuses himself, and makes a quick trip to the toilet where he regurgitates everything he’s heard. I’m next! I wonder if the therapist knows what he’s up to, if she even hears him flush.

When he returns, he hands the Buddha-bellied therapist a schedule of his weight loss program. He has been losing weight steadily for months and is proud of his progress, weighing less than your average teenage girl. You can barely see him in profile.

Surely he could ride one of the phantom poodles if it would take a saddle. What a go they would have-- over hill and dale… for the poodles are nighttime adventurers. Nothing scares them because they aren’t afraid of death. “That’s the only way to live!” I shout at the therapist, who is cringing over this weight chart schedule, for she weighs at least twice as much as she should.

“You should try eating over at my house,” she says as if to entice him. Obviously she hasn’t observed his miniscule portions routine that can make a wife want to throw the spoon back in the pot. He might not want to partake in my Stay-a-Bed-Stew, but somebody here is starving!

The therapist leans so far forward that I’m afraid she might fall from her perch like a medicine ball person and roll across the floor. If she does, she may be fair game for the poodles.

“Peter could have been a mystic in some other lifetime,” she goes on. “He doesn’t need physical food, he just needs to…”

Wait a minute here. I sit up straight alongside the phantom poodles who both have good posture and an appetite for life. If Peter crumbles from within and disappears into a muddle of mental quicksand, who’s going to be responsible, HER?

But she isn’t listening. She is trying to prescribe her own method of whisking-- “When you make a request, make sure your partner says—

Give the dog a bone! The poodles second-guess her.

“You must come to me weekly,” the therapist instructs, as I write the first check of many. “Peter is a wonderful man,” she exclaims, “he is simply addicted to his wound,” which he licks and licks, as if it could nourish him. The poodles would lick it for him if he didn’t relish it himself.

We are about to leave, when she hurls this last tidbit—“If you were to die, it would devastate Peter. He would never eat another bite. But if he were to pass away, you’d just go on with your courses.”

Well, thank you for sharing, bark the phantom poodles, snapping at her kneecaps, taking invisible but fragrant dumps on the carpet.

I find Peter’s hand and drag him towards the door, but he has become like a dead weight person, looking back at the therapist, as if to say, “When can I eat with you again?”

Laura Chester

Laura Chester has published many volumes of poetry, prose and non-fiction, most recently, Riding Barranca, Trafalgar Square Press; her book of short stories, Rancho Weirdo, Bootstrap Press; Holy Personal, looking for small private places of worship, Indiana University Press, and a selection of prose-poems, Sparks, published by The Figures. Station Hill Press released an updated version of Lupus Novice, an account of Chester's personal struggle and breakthrough with the auto-immune disease SLE, while Black Sparrow Press published three of Chester's early books of fiction. Other novels include The Story of the Lake, Faber & Faber; and Kingdom Come, Creative Arts Book Company. Chester has edited five important literary anthologies, including Rising Tides, 20th Century American Women Poets, Simon & Schuster; Deep Down and Cradle & All, both from Faber, The Unmade Bed, HarperCollins; Eros & Equus and Heartbeat for Horses, Willow Creek Press. Having grown up in Wisconsin, lived in Albuquerque, Paris, and Berkeley, she now lives in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

Noel McKenna

Noel McKenna works in a variety of media, including oil, enamel and watercolour, lithography and etching, ceramic and metal. He produces offbeat depictions of everyday scenes, often including displaced objects, people and animals. His spare canvases hint at narratives beyond the picture plane, often movingly depicting the relationship between humans and animals.

Noel McKenna is a finalist in the 2021 Dobell Drawing Prize, as well as in 2019. In the same year his work was shown at Art Basel, Switzerland; Sydney Contemporary; Bayside Gallery, Brighton; and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne, and he released the publication End Street through Perimeter Editions. He was a finalist in the 2021, 2020, 2019, 2016, 2015 & 2014 Sir John Sulman Prizes, as well as a finalist in the 2018, 2017 & 2014 Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In 2016 McKenna’s work featured in the Dobell Drawing Biennial at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

In addition to being a finalist in a host of prizes, he has been the recipient of numerous prizes including the Trustees Wynne Watercolour Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney five times, Mosman Prize, Mosman Art Gallery, Sydney and The Sir John Sulman Prize, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.

Born in Brisbane, Queensland in 1956, Noel McKenna has exhibited extensively, holding solo exhibitions in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, Adelaide and Hobart, as well as in Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Ireland and New Zealand. Recent exhibitions include Noel McKenna: Landscape – Mapped at Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane (2017) and Cats that I Have Known at The Watermill Center, New York (2016). South of No North (with Laurence Aberhart and William Eggleston) Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney (2013). 

His work is held in all major state and regional galleries, and important public and corporate collections throughout Australia and overseas. McKenna currently lives and works in Sydney.

(bio from Niagara Gallery)