31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 14: “Devotion” by Sharon English

From Zero Gravity

Adult human love is complicated; this may be why so many people decide to get a dog. Canines, unlike most humans, offer loyalty and companionship that is truly unconditional. In exchange for food and shelter and some minimal level of grooming and attention, a dog will lavish affection on its owner, who never doubts the nature of that love or worries that it will be dissipated or arbitrarily turned toward someone else. Another word for this is devotion.

The title of Sharon English’s story, from her 2006 sophomore collection, is heavy with irony. The couple at the centre, Emily and Clive, have been together long enough to allow familiarity to bleed into a kind of torpor. Emily works in advertising; Clive is a crew member in the film industry. Both have given up on their youthful dreams of “doing interesting, socially meaningful work” or having children. They have instead settled into a life of routine and ennui in which a conversation of any length would “make Clive frown and sigh,” while Emily is reduced to quiet envy at the apparently exciting lives of film people, feeling that her work-from-home job holds “zero glamour” by comparison. If there is enduring devotion between the two, it is one born more out of habit than deep feeling.

Emily’s greatest devotion is reserved for Lewis, the couple’s dog. In an ironic reversal, it is Emily who is the source of abiding loyalty to the animal, not the other way around. Additionally, there is the fact that Lewis is dead. As the story opens, the dog is pacing back and forth in an agitated manner at the foot of the couple’s bed. He collapses with “a long, surrendering sigh” and is rushed to an emergency clinic, where he dies on the vet’s operating table. Something genetic is the doctor’s unhelpful diagnosis.

“Devotion” is, at least in part, a story about grief and the rituals that surround letting go of the departed. In this respect, the story’s title also tilts in another direction – that of religious devotion, the observances and practices that characterize our relationship with the divine or the eternal. These include rituals of burial, a subject that causes consternation on the part of Clive when he discovers that Emily has purchased a dog-shaped urn in which to house Lewis’s ashes. She prominently displays the urn in their home, leading Clive to express his astonishment in a direct and clipped manner: “God, this is pretty bad. Couldn’t we just get an ordinary urn? Or a nice wooden box?”

Emily, for her part, recalls an Egyptian display she once saw at the Royal Ontario Museum, an exhibit that had included ”two animal sarcophagi from tombs, holding tiny bodies of cats that had been mummified along with their masters.” What she is after, English writes, is “a container for Lewis’s essence, a death body as dignified and lovely as him.” Both Clive and Emily’s friend Gregor react with surprise bordering on disdain at the chintzy sculpted urn, for which Emily forked out $249.95. Clive’s unease only increases as Emily expands the memorial to her departed companion by adding flowers and a bone, and decorating the urn with Lewis’s old collar.

Clive’s protestations at the tackiness of the “altar” Emily has created for the departed canine are sincere; they are also a deflection of the hurt he feels for the fact that Emily appears more devoted to the ashes of the dead dog than she is to him. He verbalizes this discontent in a moment of abject frustration: “It’s like you love our dog – our dead dog – more than me. I’m just this boring guy who comes home from work.”

Here Clive is being almost wilfully disingenuous. Far from picturing Clive’s work as boring, Emily romanticizes his involvement in the film industry, especially as compared to her own workaday grind in front of her home office computer. She recalls a typical phone conversation:

“How was your morning?”

“They set a guy on fire.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it was weird. They threw gasoline all over him and then lit it. I guess he was wearing this special suit underneath his clothes. Still, he was totally in flames. And there I was ten feet away, eating a muffin. How’s your morning going?”

“I’ve been working on a bakery ad. They sent it back because they thought the picture of the bread didn’t look fresh enough.”

English thrives when working in the realist mode, and here she displays a great facility for conveying large tranches of character information in a very few words. The contrast between Clive’s day – “They set a guy on fire” – and Emily’s – “[T]he bread didn’t look fresh enough” – is profound and precisely conveys the distance between them – something neither of them is entirely willing to acknowledge, or even understand.

This distance is exacerbated by Lewis’s absence, by the lack of “loud yawns and snorts his dream grunts and sudden scrambles to his feet” that had punctuated the monotony of Emily’s days at home alone. Lewis’s “creaturely noise” has been superseded by the baldly mechanical “buzz of refrigerator and computer.”

Added to this is a recognition that the couple’s conversations have “been dwindling to mere information exchange,” while any attempt on Emily’s part to “shift direction by being more sharing and personal often felt forced, off key.” The gulf that exists between Clive and Emily did not develop overnight; what stings Clive most is the realization that the dog he encouraged Emily to agree to has supplanted him as the centre of Emily’s attention and affection.

If there were any doubt about this, English makes it perfectly clear in the text of a subsequent phone conversation in which the communicative distance between the couple is literalized by a mobile phone cutting in and outl:

“Can we talk?”

“__aser Valley _____ highway. Coquitlam.”

“What for?” (Laughter.) “Who’s that?”

“We’re driving out to __ teamster _____.”

“What?”

“Can’t you hear what I’m saying?”

Clive’s question is significant, even though he appears entirely oblivious to the importance buried beneath the seemingly banal words. The couple’s inability to communicate successfully – verbally, emotionally, or physically (Emily ignores Clive’s desire for intimacy by telling herself that “guilt-motivated sex would be a tainted and sorrowful offering”) – has created a rift in their relationship that Lewis’s death has helped expose. When Clive asks what possible benefit Emily’s makeshift shrine to the departed canine could offer her, she responds incisively: “Pure love.”

This, after all, is what Lewis provided for Emily, something she has been unable to locate elsewhere. The disparity between her sense of the world and her place in it, as opposed to Clive’s, is made clear by their respective reactions to the memory of Lewis as a figure in their shared home. “Lewis was perfect,” Emily declares. To which her despondent life partner responds disconsolately, “He was what he was.”

31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 14: “Devotion” by Sharon English