Playing Dead by D. Arthur

June 2, 2018
Brevity and the beast by Madhura Thatte
June 4, 2018



Playing Dead



A line of people wraps around the lamppost, cluttering up the sidewalk, each of them waiting for their turn to step inside the roving animal shelter. Their windbreakers, jean jackets, “I <3 NY” crewneck sweatshirts are all splattered with spittles of rain.

All of these people are anxiously supplying demand for the chance to hold a kitten or puppy for just a second— giving the unwanted animals some semblance of warmth and love, even though none of them have any plans of committing to a life with a new furry friend.

“That’s what my love life feels like,” she chomps on her straw and imagines saying these words to her therapist, instead of just spewing them to the air around her.  A girl taking a selfie with an iPad looks up at her, expectantly. “Sorry, I was just talking to myself.” She walks away from the crowd and toward the line. She finishes her thought to herself. Yes, yes, she is something to hold, a body to feel, but only, only for an instant.

She brings a dog home with her, a camel colored mutt of a terrier who is missing one eye, but constantly looks like he is smiling. She doesn’t have any supplies or any idea how to take care of him, but she is willing to hold him for longer than a second in a truck on a busy street. She hopes that that will be enough.

She names him Walt, but then remembers that Disney was a bit of a racist. She tries out names both human and canine in timbre. None of them seem quite right, so she keeps swapping them out, as if she is trying them on in a fluorescent lit department store fitting room. The corner of the room a wrinkled pile of discarded names for someone else to sort through.

She tries to teach him tricks.

“Sit, Charles.” “Shake, Mister Woofs.” “Lie Down, Harry Pawter.”

Sometimes he looks like he might be listening, but he just lies on his back with his tongue lolling toward the ceiling. He is close to playing dead, but he pants and slivers and squirms too much for her to count it.

On a date, she tries on what it feels like to architect a personality around having a dog now.

“A dog, wow, what’s his name?”

She takes a long slow sip, maintaining eye contact, wondering if the slow sluice of booze down her throat is making her pupils brighter or more dull.

“I just, love him, yanno?” She slurps at her moscow mule until she can hear the gurgle of the empty air between the ice cubes signaling that it’s time for a refill.

“He doesn’t love you though,” micro bubbles of microbrewed beer dampen the whiskers above her date’s upper lip.

“No, no, that’s cats— cats will eat their owner if their owner dies.”

“Sure, but dogs will hump their owner in that situation.”

He laughs,  she doesn’t.

“If you die, your dog will try to fuck you.”

She goes home soaked in vodka, and nearly trips over the mop of fur as he presses his warm body against the door, waiting for her. She carries him to bed, sits on the edge, kicks off her shoes, slides out of her jacket, flops backward fully clothed, releases the hound.

He is so small, and it feels so strange for her to have another living thing in her bed. The sheets smell like sweat and puppy breath. If she shuts her eyes tight enough and ignores his panting, she can pretend that the smell is the smell of sex— salty, meaty, primal, fresh.

She can hold his whole chest in one of her hands, his ribcage a fragile amalgamation of toothpicks. It feels like she is holding his heart in her hands. She imagines his heart like a bird with wings beating wildly. That feels too cliché.

With her unoccupied hand she grabs her iPhone to look up the etymology of the word cage. It comes from latin. Cavea.

The seats in a theater, his heart the roaring crowd.  The sockets of his eyes, his heart the way he sees.

The roof of a mouth, his heart a bored tongue cluck-cluck-clucking against the osseous folds.

That’s the one.  Yes, yes, that’s the one.

He has smoothly eased into his resting position on the lightly-stained floral duvet cover, vestigial nipples pointed star-ward at the spackled egg cream ceiling.  He is nearly still, and the room is dark save for the light glow of an iPhone lit up with messages from the lackluster date.  Out of the corner of her eye she can see the grey bubbles swelling and bursting with the frustration of unanswered texts.

“Play dead, Barkus Aurelius.” “Play dead, Bradley Pooper.” “Play dead, good boy, bad boy, baby boy.” She tries, and tries, but his eyes flick open, he whimpers and wiggles desperate to feel the pads of her fingers on the soft fuzzy flesh of his tiny rib cage.

She gives up. She plays dead herself. He mounts her shoulder. Hump. Hump. Hump. She cries.

D. Arthur is a Brooklyn based fiction writer and humorist. She has writing featured on The Belladonna Comedy, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Lost Balloon Magazine (forthcoming). You can find more of her work on her website (, but she’s most fun on twitter: @babydmarie.