Thirteen Porcelain Schnauzers

Venita Blackburn

Partner #1 and partner #2 believed their real sexual dysfunction was because of the dogs: Duchess and Gnarls Barkley. Gnarls was almost ten and Duchess barely three. Four months had gone by since the couple had had sex or a conversation that lasted more than twenty minutes without fighting or made dinner with both of their bodies in the kitchen at the same time or went to the movies together or exchanged kinky pictures at work or planned a vacation or anything at all. Partner #1 was long-boned and somewhat feminine in voice and skin care regimens while partner #2 spoke with a husky patience that disarmed everyone and possessed refined abdominal and shoulder definition.

Duchess walked with the elegance of a librarian alone among her books but took to strangers and other dogs like a cockroach when the lights come on: panic. Gnarls Barkley, however, could not be more graceless, small, close to the ground, or indescribable in breed or disposition. He loved wildly, from his food to the beggars on the sidewalk. All were his, and he was theirs. Playtime between the two dogs was like watching a teenage girl spin an old man around in his wheelchair till he hollered please stop. Partner #1 and partner #2 loved their animals unconditionally.

The website for the trainer seemed legit and even included an interview on a national morning talk show, no pricing info, which piqued the couple’s interests, daring them to prove their worth as newcomers to such a high-priced city with unattainable real estate. On their appointment day, the couple walked up the stairs to the trainer’s home not at all prepared for what they’d encounter. Drums and chants welcomed them. There were shrines to several gods, some recognizable to the couple and others more mysterious. Partner #1 had seen Santeria in practice at her aunt’s home, a Cuban expat with glaucoma and a temper. Here was a familiar altar easily mistaken for an abstract sculpture, wires and scrap metal, the head of a broken hammer, slips of paper, one with a penciled eye, at the center a female doll, Our Lady of Charity, all painfully and meticulously arranged. Partner #2 saw the look of recognition in partner #1 and felt more at ease. A happy Buddha losing small flecks of gold paint rested under a mirror. Beside the mirror hung a tiny Christ like a queer sconce, similar to one that still resided in Partner #1’s childhood home, the son of God on his perpetual cross with tears of blood frozen on his head and ribs.

The trainer led them all, partner #1, partner #2, Duchess, and Gnarls Barkley, out of the hall of deities and into the main room, where yet another shrine existed. They noticed a side table without a cloth, laden with figurines of gray schnauzers in many sizes — one too big for the top of the table so it sat underneath, others strategically placed above in various poses of delight, play, sadness, and contentment. Their clay tongues lolling or pointed, ears perked in perpetuity. Partner #1 and partner #2 looked at each other and nearly smiled at the question posed by this house: What kind of human collects both gods and porcelain schnauzers? Silently, the couple shared a thought about the morality and/or sanity of practicing so many religions at once in such close proximity inside of one room and one woman.

The couple’s reverie was not long-lived and they remembered why they were there, and it wasn’t for religion or a religion that still had a name. Shortly after moving in together partner #1 touched partner’s breasts in a way that was declared offensive. The two have yet to recover.

In the light of the main room, the trainer glowed like an aging rock star except her feet were bare and toenails a little dirty. The trainer sat everyone down on a green king-sized sheet that covered the hardwood and asked what were the main issues. Partner #1 considered the question and how much there was to repair, how they had tried several cramp-inducing sex positions, how they had abandoned them all for wine and binge-watching television shows, how soon their lives were consumed with cleaning, washing clothes, and wiping every surface of their home and cars and seeking out exhausting menial domestic gestures of affection to avoid each other but still be with each other and how touching partner #2 now looked more like calculus than love. Partner #2 said the dogs didn’t get along. During the move to the city Duchess bit Gnarls Barkley twice on the back of the neck for undisclosed reasons. The attack was brief though blood fell.

Both partner #1 and # 2 had high expectations for the trainer’s response to both the answer given and the one unspoken, and after a serious nod the trainer said, “Well, if they’ve been violent they can’t be alone together anymore; the risk is too great.” It was an obvious solution that they hadn’t considered, and felt somewhat more hopeful, a kind of relief. An inevitable end for them all: separation.

Then Gnarls Barkley lost his shit. He growled and whined and lunged and humped in the direction of the dog shrine. On the website the trainer wore a sweater with her business logo and jeans. She spoke with a boss-like kindness and authority even to the hostess of that morning show, as if she were being trained along with the labradoodle panting under spotlights. But here in her wide brown skirt with lace trim and the ferocity of Gnarls Barkley the trainer sweated. She made attempts to control him with odd clicks and snaps then squirts of water and bitters to his face that all failed. Her embarrassment was sour, and could not compete with the feral desire of Gnarls Barkley for every one of the porcelain schnauzers. The partners realized that the relief they felt earlier and the solution given came from a charlatan, that she did not understand how to teach love. They would not take her advice or pay her fee when every promise of a correction lay broken. The couple would go on, drawing blood from barely any contact while waiting for a real answer. Partner #1 spoke gently, excusing them all from the room and the shame, then passing through the hall as every one of the gods closed their eyes.

Venita Blackburn is the author of the story collections Black Jesus and Other Superheroes and How to Wrestle a Girl. She is an Assistant Professor of creative writing at California State University, Fresno.