by Eric DePriester
Stuart grazed the open bar at his high school reunion, forcing conversation long enough
to catch the bartender’s eye. As he ordered a scotch on the rocks, a familiar voice struck from behind.
“Stu, how the hell are ya?”
It took three blinks for memory to return. “Todd Templeton?”
“In the flesh.”
Stuart met his sturdy handshake. “The last time I saw you, they were –“
Todd let out a booming, genuine laugh. “Don’t worry, Stu. I don’t hold grudges. Tell me, what’s new with you?”
“Well, I just graduated.”
“Congrats. What’d you study?”
“It was a four-year program, but I was working my way through, so it took me five.”
“Anything for an education. That’s the spirit. I studied the same thing.”
“Online. Took me 18 months all together. Couldn’t have been simpler.”
Color fled Stuart’s face.
“Best part is, it barely cost a thing.”
From deep within Stuart, a wave of nausea rolled through his stomach, up to and nearly out of his throat; he suppressed it, choked it down, and raised the corners of his lips.
“Are you all right?”
Stuart nodded. “Great. What are you doing now?”
“I start at Westchester and Martin next Monday.”
“That’s a real agency.”
“I should hope so.”
Stuart attempted another smile, bowed his head, and burrowed to the exit.
Lying on the couch with a Bloody Mary in hand, Stuart stared circles, rounding the walls for an answer. On cue, Karl Barx sauntered into the room. The four-year-old terrier mix was a scruffy, brown-and-grey-haired gentleman with a percussive bark and a winning grin.
Stuart dropped his hand and Karl nuzzled it.
“What do we do now?”
Karl sat and cocked his head.
“I’ll bet you could, too.”
“Slow down. That’s not bad.”
Karl stood and wagged his tail.
“What would you study?”
Karl perked his ears.
Stuart sat up.
Dressed in his best navy suit and a proud crimson tie, Stuart greeted friends and family with a smile and a shake. The first-comers badgered Stuart for answers and he gave them nothing.
The next wave did the same, and still he resisted. When his apartment was satisfactorily full, Stuart stood on a chair and clinked a glass.
“Thank you all for coming. It means a lot to us.”
His sister called from the front. “Who’s us?”
“I’m getting to that. You see, last year — some of you were there — we had our five-year reunion. I caught up with Todd Templeton, who, is he here tonight? Todd?”
Stuart scanned the room.
“Anyway, Todd’s doing great. He got a degree, online, and now he has a proper job.”
His coworker called from the middle. “So what?”
“So, it got me thinking. I bet that anyone — or anything — with a pulse could pass that kind of program.”
His classmate called from the back. “You got another degree?”
“Even better. Ladies and gentleman, may I present to you, a graduate of Griffin University with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics…”
Stuart whistled loudly.
“Mr. Karl Barx!”
Karl trotted into the room, wearing his grin, a miniature mortarboard, and a green sash.
When he reached the front, Stuart grabbed Karl and hoisted him high for a volley of laughter and applause.
After another cry of “To Karl”, his classmate patted Stuart on the back. “Nice work, Stu. Did you tell Todd?”
“He’ll find out.”
“Sure he will. Tell me, how’d you do it?”
“Nothing to it. A couple of forms, a credit card payment, and some online classes, and Karl was all set.”
Stuart looked to Karl and Karl looked back.
His classmate refilled their plastic champagne flutes. “You took the tests for him?”
“It was an experiential program, just video lectures. We watched them together.”
“What’s next for the little guy? Is he going to move out and make it in the big city?”
Stuart looked again to Karl, but Karl was occupied with other guests.
Stuart smiled. “He’s undecided.”
Stuart sat on the couch with Karl curled in his lap, one hand scratching Karl’s back and the other gripping the last swallows of champagne.
He stared at two framed diplomas: one his and one Karl’s.
Stuart looked down at Karl, deep in slumber, then back to the diplomas.
“One’s not enough. Not for a good boy.”
Karl stretched across the living room rug, wearing a loosely tied mortarboard and gnawing an extra-large piece of rawhide. Stuart slumped on the couch, wearing an ill-fitted blazer and sweatpants.
Between pulls from a champagne bottle, Stuart’s eye wandered from the proud graduate to a newly framed MBA, hung next to the other diplomas.
“You did it, boy.”
Karl stopped gnawing and looked up.
“That’s right. I’m proud of you.”
Karl tilted his head.
“You can do anything. Be anyone.”
“I’ll find something. I just need time.”
Karl stood and crossed to the couch.
“I know, I know. No excuses.”
Stuart drained the bottle and closed his eyes.
Karl jumped onto the couch and nudged Stuart’s arm with his snout.
Stuart did not move.
Stuart paced the empty kitchen with a crumpled RSVP in his hands.
“That son of a bitch. I can’t believe it.”
The door swung open, followed by a wave of chatter and Stuart’s sister.
“What are you doing? We’re waiting for you.”
“He’s not coming.”
“Karl? He’s in the living room.”
“No, Todd Templeton.”
“He’s the reason I’m doing this.”
“Still? You said this was about exposing unethical institutions.”
“I know what I said.”
His sister looked hard at Stuart.
Stuart looked down.
“Do what you want, Stuart. Just do something.”
“Look, Stu. If you spent less time on Karl, and more time on yourself –“
“They’re waiting for me.”
The ceremony was brief, the applause scattered; attendance was down by half and enthusiasm the same. Karl still relished the attention, strutting through the room to collect coos and scratches, but Stuart only found the right spirit after a few glasses of champagne.
Stuart clinked glasses with his coworker.
“To your genius dog.”
“My genius dog.”
“We’ve missed you around the office, Stu. Hasn’t been the same.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“I do. It’s a shame you have to spend so much time on your… personal work.”
“Freelancing fits my schedule.”
“You know, if you quit school and came back part-time, you’d have the same freedom, and more cash. And it wouldn’t hurt to get out of the house.”
“Quit school? I haven’t been back since undergrad.”
His coworker drained his glass and cleared his throat.
“I’m helping Karl, if that’s what you mean. He can’t chase his dream on his own.”
“Stuart, he’s a dog.”
“He chases his tail.”
“You don’t know him like I do.” Stuart raised his voice, capturing the room. “I invite you here, to our home, to celebrate Karl’s accomplishment, and you insult his intelligence.”
“I didn’t mean it like–“
“I know what you meant.” Stuart looked around, at the silent faces of his friends and family, all wearing disappointment. “Is that how you feel? That it’s all a joke?”
No one spoke.
“You know what? Get the hell out, and leave us alone. Karl, come here.”
Karl whined and walked to Stuart with his tail between his legs.
“Look at that — you scared him. Out, everyone.”
Some guests collected their coats and others waited for Stuart to change his mind.
“Out. We don’t need you. Do we, Karl? We’ll be just fine.”
In ten minutes, the room was empty except for Stuart, Karl, and the last bottle of champagne.
In an hour, only Stuart and Karl remained.
Stuart nailed a PhD to the wall as Karl danced at his feet, clutching a worn duck.
No one else was there and no one was on their way.
Stuart topped off a plastic cup with boxed white wine, then brought the box to the couch.
Karl wagged his tail.
“You could be a professor.”
Karl stopped wagging.
“I know, I know. Academia’s not for you. Do, not teach. I’ve heard it.”
“But I tell you, you could make a hell of a career with that thesis. They gave you an A-, and that’s not nothing.” He pointed to a manuscript on the table entitled, “Dog Eat Dog: A Critical Study of Modern Capitalism.”
“You could find another assistant. All I did was type.”
Karl barked again.
“You don’t, and I don’t. I won’t.” Stuart finished his cup. “I have to do my own thing now, figure me out.” He poured another.
Karl whined and lowered his eyes.
“I’m not. I’d do anything for you. I have.”
Karl looked up at Stuart.
Stuart stood. “Now it’s time for me.”
Stuart finished his cup and threw it against the wall.
Karl barked again.
“I bet you do, I bet you know just the thing. The distinguished scholar knows best. You don’t know a goddamned thing.”
Stuart shouted. “I don’t need you. I don’t need anything. Hear me? Nothing.” He sat down, put his head in his hands, and lowered to a whisper. “I’ve got nothing.”
Karl jumped onto the couch and put a paw on Stuart’s leg.
“That’s right.” Stuart raised his head and looked at Karl. “I have you.”
Karl dropped his paw and nuzzled Stuart’s leg.
Stuart smiled. “We’re something, aren’t we?”
“Tomorrow. Tonight, we celebrate.” He filled his glass and raised it. “To the scholar, Dr. Karl Barx.”
Karl’s grin grew to triumph.
About the author:
Eric DePriester lives in Los Angeles with his dog Kobe. His fiction has appeared in The 34th Parallel and Five on the Fifth, and his poetry in On the Rusk and Stereo-Man 3D.