Edgar’s wife was almost five months pregnant when they bought ECKEETA. They were in IKEA shopping for HENSVIK, a convertible crib they’d read about in Consumer Reports, and a changing table. On their way for some meatballs and a lingonberry juice at the store’s cafeteria they passed through Småland, the children’s section. Edgar picked up a stuffed animal that might have been a rabbit but seemed to bear a marsupial pouch. He wagged it at his wife. Just then the dog caught Imke’s eye, or more accurately her halter top, the bottom of which it had clenched in its particleboard jaws.
Imke had grown up with dogs. She didn’t get upset. She petted ECKEETA’s head. Three nearby toddlers began petting the dog too. One buried his face in its felt coat and swished her nose gleefully back and forth, giggling.
“We did say we might try to adopt a dog and get it housebroken before the baby arrives,” she said.
“Not sure adopt is the right word for this particular guy,” Edgar said. He wasn’t sure he’d signed on for the idea of a baby and a puppy all at once. But when you’re pregnant or your wife’s pregnant, Edgar thought, it’s hard not to want to coddle and coax every living thing and give it a fighting chance.
ECKEETA stopped licking one of the toddlers’ faces with his nylon tongue. He came over to Edgar and did that dog thing where they come up from behind and nuzzle the palm of your hand and then you’re down on one knee, scratching them behind their ears. In this case they were ears made of some kind of synthetic brown fabric that felt like sisal or burlap. Edgar attempted forbearance, and threw a nearby ball (LØKA) to try to get the dog to chase it. Ten seconds later ECKEETA was back. He dropped LØKA at Edgar’s feet and wagged his tail.
Then Edgar was taking a tag off the wall with ECKEETA’s information.
He and Imke went and ate IKEA meatballs in gravy.
The cafeteria where they ate was bright. Edgar kept feeling like he was somewhere in Western Europe. Amsterdam, maybe. Or Brussels. What made it feel that way? Edgar couldn’t track the empirical reason for it, but the feeling was inescapable. There was a time not long before when he put on a Gregory backpack and trekked around with a Eurail pass. Now, in a matter of months, he would have to stay at home every night hushing a baby to sleep.
All around the airy room, everyone had a kid. A tattooed couple trailed two boys under the age of six. Both had faux-hawks and Beirut t-shirts. Blue veins raised blue ink on the father’s arms as he carried a tray full of meatballs and elderflower juice. Until Imke got pregnant, it hadn’t ever struck Edgar just how many people in IKEA had young children. How many women were pregnant. The store was teeming with baby or future-baby. It made sense for the first time that humans preparing to populate their homes with new humans would want solid inexpensive structures to put them in.
“So what do you think it will be?” Imke said. It took Edgar a second to follow. She’d seen him staring at the kids. “Your baby, Ed. Boy or girl.”
It was all they’d talked about lately. Edgar didn’t have the heart to admit he didn’t have an opinion. It wasn’t indifference. More a failure of imagination. He still couldn’t even picture having a kid, let alone one with a gender. He’d always loved Imke intensely, as if deep inside she bore some secret he needed to seek and protect. Now it seemed that feeling was some prophecy come true, but it remained abstract.
“Boy I guess,” Edgar said. Imke just looked down at her meatballs. “Or girl. I honestly don’t know.”
Downstairs in the warehouse, Edgar and Imke walked up Aisle 10 to Row 16. There was the box: ECKEETA. 106.54.9055. What they found there wasn’t the dog himself. Instead there was a long cardboard box containing puppy parts to assemble at home. Edgar struggled to get the box onto their blue cart. It was far too heavy for its modest dimensions, like it contained carbonite or a black hole. Edgar lost control. The box clanked onto the floor. Something metallic rang inside.
“Careful!” Imke said. “That’s our new little guy in there.”
Edgar rested the box on his knee. He swiped sweat from his upper lip. There’s no way not to feel angry in the IKEA warehouse. You’ve just been drinking lingonberry juice and then shopping to the end of your patience, and now there are boxes to lug? Just as he was about to express his frustration, Edgar couldn’t help but notice his wife’s stomach.
A little bump bulged at her waistline.
He was careful as he placed the box atop the other boxes, all full of the million little parts that would soon furnish baby’s room.
Imke had Edgar put the crib and changing table together first. When he’d finished he tore open ECKEETA’s packaging. There was a plastic bag with what looked like a thousand wooden pegs, of four indistinguishable sizes, and little plastic buttons. There was an Allen wrench like a chrome lowercase “l.” They already had a drawer full of Allen wrenches downstairs. Every piece of furniture in their house came from IKEA.
Edgar spent the afternoon tightening screws and flipping through the paper instruction booklet, which contained no words so it could be used by people in dozens of countries. This one was much longer and more involved than any he’d seen before, almost thirty pages. He had almost tightened the dog’s right ear all the way when Imke passed the baby’s room.
“Stop it right now, Ed,” she said. “Look at that. It’s obviously upside down.” Since the first trimester she’d been short with him in a way she’d never been. He heard her throwing up in the toilet every morning. How much patience would he have if he was nauseous every day? When he had a cold he acted like the world was ending.
He un-tightened the right ear with his Allen wrench. He turned it over and screwed it in again. ECKEETA was finished. Each step of putting him together, it had seemed there was no way this agglomeration of fabric and wooden pieces would come together to make an animate dog. Finished, ECKEETA was identical to the dog they’d played with in the store. He lay sleeping on SÖPORNEÏN.
“Let’s leave him alone,” Imke said. She stood impassive in the doorway, unconsciously rubbing her belly with her right hand. They left the dog sleeping there while they put all the thin cardboard and Styrofoam into a Glad trash bag, as quietly as they could so as not to wake him.
Around that time Edgar had been spending all his weekends dealing with the huge sinkhole that had opened up in their backyard. Hurricanes and tropical storms whipped through their neighborhood at an alarming rate the whole month of August. For a week there was a lull. Then in mid-September a hurricane hit. Imke was already exhausted from the early stages of pregnancy. Now she could barely make it to her job at the hospital. Edgar wasn’t able to make it to campus to teach his classes the semester’s second week. The Schuylkill flooded. Philadelphia was inert for two whole days. All the highways and bridges over the river washed out.
The morning after the storm Imke got him up out of bed before her 6 AM departure and said, “You’re not going to believe this.” She took his hand, her index finger turning softly clockwise in his palm. She was almost excited.
They stared out through the screen door in back. The whole middle of their backyard was like a fallen birthday cake. Grass and soil wilted eight, nine feet below the surface. The sinkhole was fifteen feet wide. Edgar spent the morning trying to shovel out the loose soil, but there was so much. It was dense, and heavier than he’d imagined. He couldn’t tell what was at bottom. After a couple hours he’d hardly made a dent. Their house had been built in the 1850’s, the oldest on the block. Who knew what he was looking at?
The day after their IKEA trip, a contractor came by to have a look.
“Could be an old well,” he said. “Or a firepit? These old farm houses, they used to dig firepits and cook out back.”
“So you can take care of it?” Edgar asked.
“Oh, no, man,” the contractor said. “Shit no.” He had a short, pointy goatee and cowrie-shell bracelets on his wrists and ankles. “I wouldn’t touch it myself, bro! If it’s a well, you gotta get all kinds of permits. Anything you fill it with gotta be approved by the state in case it goes groundwater. Even if it’s not, and it was a firepit or some such, who knows what kind of historical shit is under there. Could be slave papers down in there, Indian burial ground hooey.”
So what was he supposed to do? Edgar asked.
“It was me, man?” the contractor said. “Wouldn’t say bupkis about it to anyone. Just fill that shit in. And hey—tie a rope around your waist if you’re getting in there. Don’t wanna go Baby Jessica on us.”
Edgar went over to the old ironwood next to the hole. He put his hand on the smooth pocked bark. It felt like cold flesh. Each of the branches of the ironwood looked like the gnarled, sinewy muscle of a body-builder. Just as he put his hand there, ECKEETA came busting out of the backdoor and galloped up to the contractor and started barking. It was a flat, muffled, fabricky sound.
“Whoa, there, boy—thing—guy,” the contractor said. He crouched and put the back of his left hand to ECKEETA’s muzzle. The dog backed up and put his tail between his legs. Edgar was surprised at the reaction. ECKEETA was a puppy. Since they put him together he’d only been playful, exuberant.
Now he saw that the dog wasn’t barking at the contractor at all, but at the sinkhole. It was like he was waiting for something to come up out of the ground.
“Weird little guy you’ve got there,” the contractor said.
“His name’s ECKEETA,” Edgar said. “We just got him yesterday.” The contractor stared at the dog while ECKEETA bared his teeth at the sinkhole, barking and barking and barking.
“My wife,” Edgar said. “Always wanted one—well, has always wanted a dog.”
“Bet she does,” the contractor said.
ECKEETA jumped down into the hole and started digging. Suddenly he let out a high-pitched whimper and jumped back out. He started scratching at the backdoor more intently than he had at the hole. Edgar thought ECKEETA might turn and survey the sinkhole again. He let the dog in. Out of sight of the hole, ECKEETA just sat down on the kitchen floor and licked his hindquarters. Then he stood and barked at a ficus tree in the corner.
Later that day Edgar stopped by Home Depot to pick up some cinderblocks and thirty pounds of topsoil. He was in the middle of ripping open plastic bags and dumping cinderblocks atop the dozens he’d already put in the hole when he heard a soft thin bark at the back door. Evening was sapping the last light. There he was—ECKEETA, whipping his felt tail back and forth like a metronome at 200 beats per minute, barking.
“He’s desperate to see you,” Imke said. “Just stood looking out the back door the whole time you were gone.”
She opened the screen door and ECKEETA nearly bowled Edgar over, licking him all over his face with his plasticky tongue. As abruptly he stopped and started digging at his flanks like he had a flea or termite. He stood and barked at a fern at the far corner of the yard.
“You should take him for a walk,” Imke said. “I bet he’d love to head to the park. But oh, shit,” she said. “We forgot a leash.”
She looked at Edgar and he looked at her and they both looked at the tree. He untied the rope from the ironwood and from his waist and tied it around ECKEETA’s neck. Imke grabbed LØKA from the big yellow IKEA bag in the living room, and out they all went to enjoy the last minutes of the day in the park.
Those first weeks ECKEETA was easy and free around the house. He got up early needing a walk. There were no plastic bags to bring along, no waste to pick up. He didn’t eat anything but the little plastic dog food pellets they bought for $1.99 at IKEA. More and more he would growl at the flora there was in their neighborhood. Edgar and Imke increasingly left him inside. It was the beginning of October and Edgar’s semester was well underway, so he had to leave the sinkhole until the weekends anyway.
The second month with ECKEETA the hole was nearly half-full. On weekends Imke was nauseous every afternoon. The baby bump now visible, it was easy enough for her just to take the days off. She streamed Netflix on their HDTV. They’d bought the 40-inch hulk knowing they’d soon be home evenings. Edgar bought an expensive television table with compartments for a Blu-Ray player and discs under it, and turned each of the hundreds of screws with his Allen wrench until the thing was sound. Watching TV during the day seemed the height of opulence, but Imke was pregnant. The dog stayed inside, on the couch with her, where he was most docile. With ECKEETA lying on her lap Imke wasn’t doing nothing.
“I need something clean to eat,” she said.
“Clean?” Edgar said.
“Red peppers, yellow peppers, cucumbers, a tangelo. You know, clean food.” Edgar stopped digging for an hour to head out to Produce Junction. When he returned Imke was asleep, an empty pint of Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food on the floor next to her. He dropped the paper bags in the kitchen and went back at the sinkhole.
When Edgar came in for a sandwich Imke was awake.
“Don’t track all that mud in here,” she said. “I just vacuumed.” Law & Order droned onscreen. With a television that big, the actors’ heads were nearly the size of Edgar’s and Imke’s. ECKEETA just picked his head up and looked at Edgar, then put it back on Imke’s thighs. He’d been all puppy-kinetic the first couple weeks after they got him. Now it was like he was already getting into the middle ages of mellow doghood. Sometimes Edgar would throw LØKA his way and ECKEETA would start to run after it, only to stop mid-gallop and bite angrily at his back leg. Then he would bark at an azalea.
The only thing that really got a rise out of ECKEETA was the sinkhole. Edgar piled cinderblocks a half-dozen high next to the hole. He bought a second rope and tied it tight around his waist. He’d piled some cinderblocks on one side of the hole. They stayed put. But on the side of the hole nearest the old ironwood they sank each time he put one in, almost gone by morning. So he went against the contractor’s advice and began to dig.
About two feet down, his shovel hit something. It made a plinking sound.
It was an old spoon. The edges of the thing were so worn it surely wouldn’t do much good anymore, but its inherent spoon-ness was easily identifiable. It appeared to be made of enamel, or some ancient hard-baked clay.
“Imke, baby,” Edgar said. “Get out here.”
“Babes I don’t feel good, you know,” she yelled from inside. “I can’t take the smell of that old hole.”
Edgar brought the spoon into the house. As soon as his wife saw it, dirt crumbling off, she said, “Don’t bring that rotten thing in here!”
Before he could turn to bring the spoon back to the sinkhole, ECKEETA was on him. A low growl emerged from somewhere deep in his gullet. The dog clutched the spoon so hard the screw at the back of the left side of his jaw popped and rolled to the floor. The utensil clattered next to it, trailing dirt.
“Look what you’ve done,” Imke said.
“He bit me,” Edgar said. “Damn dog bit me.”
He looked down at the meaty side of his right hand, where the sisal of ECKEETA’s jaw had abraded the skin. Four distinct spots of blood appeared where the particleboard teeth had entered his palm.
“I’d bite you, too, bringing that dirty old thing in here,” Imke said. “It’s not like he has bacteria in his mouth. He doesn’t even have saliva.”
Edgar followed the dog out to the backyard. He’d already jumped down the sinkhole with the spoon and begun digging at the ground with his fabric paws. Regular earth wouldn’t have given way for ECKEETA’s wooden claws, but the soft earth of the sinkhole did. Edgar tried to get down into the hole to fish the thing out. ECKEETA bared his wooden teeth. Edgar looked down at the puncture wounds in his hand, then let the dog alone.
Three days passed before Edgar could get ECKEETA to let him screw his jaw back in place. They’d put him together right, but he clearly wasn’t designed for biting. Each of those days the dog just sat in the yard, glaring at the sinkhole.
It was Tuesday. Edgar and Imke had their twenty-week OB appointment.
“How old do you think that thing was?” Edgar said on the ride into Center City. “Maybe Ben Franklin ate with some of his friends’ servants out there. Maybe it was a slave spoon. Maybe I should call the Germantown Historical Society to see what they think we should do about it.”
“Maybe you should focus on the fact we’re about to find out the gender of your firstborn,” Imke said. She was staring out the window at the wide, flat waters of the Schuylkill. They made their slow way down the tight esses of Kelly Drive. Edgar had been driving much slower since Imke brought him the First Response test with its two pink lines she’d peed into existence.
“You’re right, babes,” Edgar said. He grabbed Imke’s hand. She gave a squeeze and turned to look at him.
“You should have your hands at two and ten o’clock,” she said. “There’s a baby cookin’ here.”
It was a boy.
The OB, a Palestinian called Dr. Hussein with an enormous mole spraying black hair from his left cheek, pointed out the evidence on the ultrasound. Edgar and Imke looked on. In the time of enamel slave spoons, washerwomen probably came by your house and, based on how much nausea or the shapes of tea leaves, would prognosticate if it was a boy or a girl. They had a fifty-fifty chance and likely got it right often enough. They would take the mother out to a firepit in the back and, double double toil and trouble, let the smoke lift to the black nighttime blanket of stars, calling out the shapes of newborns in the impenetrable post-Colonial sky. Edgar was culturally Jewish and Imke was unfalteringly Unitarian. He’d asked if they could hold off on buying furniture for the baby’s room. In Jewish tradition it was bad luck for the baby to have any possessions before it was born—the evil eye could cast its curse.
“And do what?” Imke had asked. “Evil up all the stuff? Get it all covered in evil eye-snot? C’mon, Eddie. When was the last time you even set foot in a synagogue?” It had been three years, his nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.
They’d started going to IKEA nearly every weekend.
Sometimes they went there just to eat meatballs and gravy and lingonberry juice.
Now, in the OB’s clean white examination room, Edgar was reminded of the right angles and clean air of the IKEA cafeteria. He was about to say so when Imke said:
“Look at it, babes—just look at it!”
There was a light in her eyes he hadn’t seen in months. It was like she’d never been nauseous once in her whole fertile childbearing life. Only now, as a pink glow moved under the cardamom brown of her Unitarian freckles, did Edgar recognize just how bad she must have been feeling since her evening-sickness began. Sometimes it took a healthy wife to remind you the other version of your wife was sick.
He couldn’t help notice, a half hour later as they drove back up Kelly Drive, that the male genitalia in the ultrasound photos appeared to comprise about a third of the baby’s total body mass.
“Look at that little guy,” Imke said.
“Not so little if you ask me,” Edgar said. She had her hand on Edgar’s thigh. The river glinted tinsel on his side of the car now. Scullers rowed along the water but seemed as if they were barely moving, hundreds of yards off. Imke looked down at the picture but didn’t seem to get Edgar’s meaning.
Work was busiest through November. It was Thanksgiving before Edgar or Imke had time to think holidays. The furniture was all made up in Baby Boy’s room. They’d started calling him BB. They moved HENSVIK to the center of his room and painted the walls pale blue. In the month since they’d discovered BB’s sex they hadn’t noticed ECKEETA much. He didn’t need to be taken out. They’d stopped walking him. Some nights they just let him stay in the backyard until morning. They’d find him lying on his stomach growling at the sinkhole.
Now it was Thanksgiving. Imke’s mother would fly in from Boston and make turkey. Edgar taught his last class on Tuesday. While his mother-in-law started on the bird, he’d planned to get the last of the sinkhole filled.
“It’s much wider than I pictured,” Meredith said. She had streaks of grey through her black hair. On her neck lay an ivory cameo Edgar had never noticed.
“This new?” He used two fingers to lift it. The skin of his index finger brushed his mother-in-law’s neck skin. She drew back a bit. Just then ECKEETA came moping into the room. He looked up at Meredith and began to growl. Edgar opened the door and nudged him out.
“Just something from a drawer,” Meredith said. She was trying to glean Edgar’s meaning. “Something my mother gave me. It’s so old it might be made of elephant tusk. You think Imke would like it? Pre-baby present?”
“I have no idea,” he said.
He went downstairs and pulled out the shovel and his work gloves. He piled cinder blocks while the dog barked until he put him back inside. No matter how many blocks Edgar dumped in the hole, it felt as if there was always another inch or two he couldn’t top off. He had lower back pains. The holiday was only two days away.
He began to shovel faster. He had an iPod, and Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music blasting. Sweat dripped into his eyes. He felt the muscles in his neck strain straight down to his lumbar region and as he was shoveling again and again—fecund organic soil atop those grey uniform blocks—he didn’t hear his mother-in-law’s calls until she was touching his arm. He jumped, nearly shouldered her back from the hole.
“Sorry!” she said. “I think you’d better come in here. Something’s off with that dog.”
In the living room, ECKEETA was lying on his back by the TV table. He flopped his synthetic head back and forth, trying to snap at the table leg. It was the most expensive piece Edgar and Imke had ever bought. Some IKEA furniture was cheap, particleboard, but this was real wood. It had cost nearly a thousand dollars, and took four hours to assemble. It came with three different-sized Allen wrenches.
Edgar bent down and had a good look at ECKEETA for the first time in weeks. Half the particleboard teeth in his mouth were missing. He must have dropped them outside; Edgar hadn’t seen any in the house. The underside of each of his paws was ragged, fabric balled up into nubbles and raglets. ECKEETA’s jaw had come fully unhinged, the screw nowhere to be found. That was the only part of the dog Edgar really felt he had the wherewithal to fix. When the TV table’s top had come loose the month before he’d taken one of their Allen wrenches and tightened it. He could do that for ECKEETA, but not much more.
When Imke got home, Edgar showed her the dog’s paws, his remaining teeth.
“How could it have gotten this bad?” she said. There wasn’t much emotion in her voice. They were standing in the kitchen, and her eyes kept going to the ultrasound photos she’d posted so her parents could see them when they arrived. “Sorry. What should we do. Vet? Can you take him to the vet?” Edgar called Mt. Airy Animal Hospital. He explained the situation.
“So you say you adopted this dog where again?” the receptionist said.
“The hipster furniture store?”
“European,” Edgar said. “European furniture store. Started in Sweden I think.” There was silence on the line. “But yes. IKEA.”
“Let me talk to the doctor,” the receptionist said. While he listened to Mozart on hold Edgar stared out the window at the sinkhole. He hadn’t had a chance to look at it after his mother-in-law called him to see ECKEETA. It was almost finished. There was a space at the middle where the cinderblocks didn’t meet, but each side of the hole was finally filled. Patted brown loam sat flat, ready for grass seed.
The voice came back on the line.
“I’m very sorry,” the receptionist said. “It’s the holiday. And Doc says we don’t treat furniture. Maybe try the IKEA hotline?”
Back in the living room, Imke and Meredith had given their full attention over to the dog. His situation was deteriorating rapidly. His left hind leg was no longer fastened, and he was growling at it. Edgar noticed for the first time that he was lying on an orange rug, VËRMILLSKÖN, one they’d bought years before. The color was drained, sapped by sun and tread. Each time they vacuumed the room the filter was full of pieces of it. The brown chair in the room’s corner bore signs of fatigue; a screw that held its legs in place stuck out. The edge of a chest of drawers in the far corner was separating. Edgar’s mother-in-law’s hair was graying. She was wearing an ivory cameo like it was 1873. Edgar’s lower back throbbed with each beating of his heart. Somehow the only thing not falling apart in that room was Imke. Her gibbous belly announced itself. She looked pregnant. She contained so much BB.
ECKEETA was barely moving.
“I think we should have him put down,” Imke said.
Edgar’s mother-in-law nodded.
ECKEETA didn’t even whimper.
“I think we’ve got to do it ourselves,” Edgar said. His mother-in-law and his pregnant wife looked at him. Imke put her hand on her belly, the back of her other hand on her forehead. Neither of them looked down at the dog.
“I, I mean,” Edgar said. “When I say we, I mean I. I’ll do it.”
He would never know which turn of which screw did it.
By the time Edgar picked ECKEETA up and put him down next to the sinkhole, the dog was barely animate. Allen wrenches unscrew as easily as they screw. ECKEETA was already missing so much of his essential doghood. There was no question that by the time Edgar got the last piece of his body piled next to the sinkhole, the dog was no longer dog.
He thought of bringing his wife and his mother-in-law out for the obsequies. When he got to the back door he saw that they were standing in the kitchen together, looking at the ultrasound, evidence of his son.
He was going to have a son.
He knew he would have to take some hits for the kid. He would wipe what he’d never before wiped, stop sleeping, say things he’d heard his father say and which he’d promised never to say. Discipline. He would have to discipline and punish. Also love and hold and nuzzle. It was still so abstract. But now for the first time an image of a nose passing back and forth through gossamer hair, a family eating meatballs and drinking lingonberry juice in rarified European light, flashed through his mind. Then it passed. These images were like a presence in the substantive light of the back yard, a fragile, fantastic inevitability.
Edgar took the last pieces of their first dog and put them down one by one into the small but undeniable space between the two piles of cinderblocks that filled the rest of the sinkhole. He didn’t know the Mourner’s Kaddish well. But he remembered the rhythms. Yit gadal vi yit gadash, shimei rabah, he davened. Vi-ata yal ga vi-kodesh, he knew it was wrong but something like that, something with a new cadence. He couldn’t get further.
Instead he lifted the shovel. He picked up the last of the topsoil. He patted it down until the whole thing was flat. He had bought some expensive Schott’s grass seed to spread on top of it, but it was late November now. Nothing would grow in that soil until the following April at the earliest. By then, Edgar would have a son.