Dennis Vannatta

Cunningham Walks with God


When Cunningham’s sister-in-law, Linda, came over to the house wailing about losing her dog, his response was, “How do you know she’s lost?  Maybe she’s in heat.  Bitches in heat like to go off and find a little ‘male companionship,’ wink wink.”

            She glared at him murderously.

            “I had that dog spayed before she could walk!  You think I’d let some male dog come near my sweet baby with that disgusting thing of his?  Ugh.”

            Linda’s fifty years of spinsterhood was a life-style choice, she claimed.  Ha.  She had the personality of a cattle prod and was no more easy on the eyes, tall and hatchet-faced and buck-toothed, just the opposite of her older sister, Cunningham’s wife, who was built like a fireplug on cement blocks.  The sisters were constantly at each other’s throats, but they couldn’t stay away from one another.  Cunningham’s wife would drag him along when she went to Linda’s and demanded that he stick close when Linda came to their house.  He felt like a sacrificial steer in the bullring, something for the combatants to practice on before they got down to the serious bloodletting.  The only thing the two agreed on was their opinion of Cunningham, a pathetic, ineffectual waste of space.  It was predictable, then, that when Cunningham made his “bitch in heat” remark, his wife would join in the attack.

            “Yeah, Cunningham, if you can’t say something intelligent—and I know you can’t—why don’t you just shut up?  Better yet, get lost.”


            He fairly skipped toward the kitchen door, but before he could make his escape Linda called after him.

            “Cunningham!  If you want to make yourself useful, why don’t you go look for my dog?”

            Cunningham paused.  He was on the verge of telling her what she might attempt to do while flying in the direction of a rolling doughnut when he thought better of it.  His wife’s command to “get lost,” he well knew, meant that he should go to another room in the house to await further orders.  But if he went out ostensibly in search of Linda’s dog, he’d be footloose and fancy free.

            So he turned and said with the sincerity and gravity of the born liar, “OK, I’ll find God for you.”


Yes, Linda had named her dog “God,” but not in a sorry attempt at wit (although she appeared to have far more bones than the average person, a funny one wasn’t among the assemblage), nor as some comment on religion as far as Cunningham could tell, but as an affront to the entire human race.  When she told someone the dog’s name, she’d jut her chin out and stare down the great hump-backed length of her nose as if daring the person to make a comment.

            Cunningham felt sorry for the dog, a cute little white fluffy poodle-looking thing.  It was desperate for affection, and why not?  To be hung with an off-putting moniker like “God” and on top of it to be treated like a piece of fine crystal—look but don’t touch.  The second thing Linda would announce, right after the dog’s name, was, “She’s a Bichon Frisé, worth a thousand dollars.”  Hardly made you want to get down and roll around on the floor with her.

            Cunningham parked on the street in front of Linda’s house.  She lived in a “transitional” neighborhood a few blocks from the mall.  As head nurse in some medical center department (Cunningham could never remember which one; probably the torture ward), she could afford better.  Typical.  Too damn stubborn to move.

            Cunningham wasn’t crazy about walking around in that neighborhood.  He thought about just putting the seat back and taking a nap, but, what the hey, he could take a nap at home.  The weather was lovely, and how often was he let out without the old ball and chain?  Besides, he didn’t like to think of God out there somewhere all alone, hungry maybe, frightened.

            He got out of the car and set off up the street, looking left and right.  He hadn’t gone a block before three young men—two white and one black—came out from behind a garage and blocked his path.  The shorter of the white men, shoulders a yard across, hair close-cropped on top but falling down his back behind, got nose to nose with Cunningham and said, “What the fuck you doing on my block, dufus?”

            There was just enough room between them for Cunningham to point at his own chest.

            “Who, me?  I was just looking for a dog, lost dog.  My sister-in-law’s dog.  White, fluffy, kind of like a poodle.”

            The guy nodded several times as if that did kind of ring a bell.

            “Oh, yeah, that dog.  Yeah, we seen it.  I slit its throat and threw it in a ditch, just a couple of minutes ago.  You remember that dog, Shaun?”

            Shaun, skinny black guy, nodded.  “Oh yeah, I remember that dog.  It died hard, real hard.”

            Cunningham licked his lips. 

            “Oh, well, that’s too bad.  Because I tell you, that dog is one of these fancy-shmancy dogs, a Sidney Bechet, worth a lot of money.  I’m sure my sister-in-law would give a pretty nice reward if somebody would find it for her.  Find it alive.”

            Mention of money appeared to alter the situation.

            “Reward?  What did you say that dog looked like again?”

            Cunningham described the dog once more, gave them Linda’s address (the idea of three young toughs showing up at her house delighted him), and they went off in search of God.  Cunningham beat a fast retreat back to his car.

            Whew.  Teach him to play good Samaritan.

            Cunningham wasn’t going home just yet, though.  He drove in the direction of the mall and parked a block away.  He hadn’t parked on the mall lot since, years ago, he was getting out of his car, in a pique (his wife was ultimately to blame for all this), flung the door open, and put a six-inch gouge in the side of a black Lexus.  Cunningham had gotten the hell out of there but to this day had a vision of a black Lexus ceaselessly circling the lot, its driver bent on revenge.

            Almost immediately Cunningham spotted a white dog slinking in and out of a row of azaleas.


            God stopped abruptly, hung her head and peered around guiltily until she located the source of the voice.  As soon as she saw Cunningham, she bounded toward him, yapping joyfully.

            Cunningham squatted down to her, and God, tail wagging madly, licked his hands and face and tried to climb up into his lap.

            “Get down, damn it,” he said.  But Cunningham was pleased.  How often was any living thing happy to see him?  Yes, God was a good dog, good dog, just rotten luck in her choice of masters.  Cunningham knew the feeling.

            Cunningham had her by the collar, scratching her behind the ears.  What he should do now, of course, was take her right back home and turn her over to Bride of Frankenstein.  Shame, though.  He wouldn’t mind spending a little time with her, take her for a walk.  But he had no leash and couldn’t risk her running off again.

            Then he had an idea.  There was a ring about the size of a quarter on God’s collar where you snapped on the leash.  Still holding God with one hand, with the other Cunningham unbuckled his belt and pulled it out of the trouser loops.  Narrow and black, it was his best belt, the only one long enough to fit the size 38 slacks he now wore after giving up on the sham of pretending he could still fit into a 36.  The belt-tip slipped easily through the ring on God’s collar, then through the buckle, and when Cunningham pulled it all the way out it was secure to the ring and he could hold the end, just like a leash.  He didn’t worry about his trousers falling down, not with his gut pressing against the waist-band.  Half the time he forgot to wear a belt, in fact.

            “Let’s walk, God,” he said.

            God was more than willing.  They walked on toward the mall.

            He didn’t know what the mall’s policy was on pets, so he stuck to the sidewalk that bordered the parking lots surrounding the mall on all four sides.  He hadn’t traversed even one side before he was stopped twice by women wanting to pet his dog.  Young women.  Pretty women.  He’d heard that dogs were a real chick magnet.

            “Chick magnet.”  He liked that.  He felt that, out on a sunny spring day walking an expensive dog like God, he could use a phrase like “chick magnet” without sounding utterly ridiculous.  Not that he was out to attract women.  He’d done that once three decades ago, and he was still paying the price, every day of his life.  Still, who could blame him for feeling good about a little attention from les femmes?

            They walked a complete circuit of the mall, during which God was stopped any number of times for caresses, oos, and ahs. A mother with three children approached, and the littlest girl instantly fell in love with God, wanted her for her very own, and had to be hauled away bawling by her mother.  Cunningham enjoyed all of it immensely, especially the bawling girl.

By the time they got back to where they started, Cunningham was winded.  God’s tail wasn’t standing quite so high, either.  Cunningham sat down on a concrete bench under a bus stop sign.  God immediately flopped down, laid her head on her paws, and closed her eyes.

            Sitting there in the sun so serene, so at peace with the world, Cunningham began to think—a bad idea, of course, but not always fatal.  What Cunningham thought was asinine enough:  that in retrospect God’s name couldn’t be purely coincidental, that perhaps she’d been sent like some Old Testament angel disguised as a lowly thing to show that even for the despised and downtrodden of the world—i.e., Cunningham—there was hope for redemption and happiness.  Asinine or not, what he thought wasn’t the problem but the fact that he thought at all, got distracted, let his guard down.

            When he came out of his reverie he noticed a man standing about ten feet away, staring at Cunningham and smiling.  Still warmed by the afterglow of his vision of peace and harmony, Cunningham failed to note that the man’s stare and smile had a disturbingly rigid, metallic cast.  He wore an army field jacket and dirty jeans, holes everywhere, and you could wring grease from his long tangled hair.

            Cunningham was just on the verge of getting uneasy when the man spoke.

            “That’s the most beautiful dog I’ve ever seen.  That’s a beautiful beautiful beautiful beautiful dog.”

            Cunningham relaxed again.  The guy might be down on his luck, but his heart was in the right place.

            “Thanks,” he said, as if he and not the dog had been complimented.  “She’s a real charmer, isn’t she?  A real special dog—a Bijou Deluxe.”

            “Wow!  Would it be all right if I petted her?”

            “Sure, why not?”

            Holding his hands out from his sides like he was balancing on a tightrope, the man walked unsteadily over to the bench, knelt, and began gently stroking God’s hair.

            “Oh, man, soft, so soft soft soft.  Would it bother her if I picked her up?”

            “Not at all.  That dog loves affection.”

            The man picked her up and cradled her gently, slowly stroking her hair.  In a moment God’s eyes rolled back and then closed as if she were in ecstasy.

            “What’s her name?” the man whispered as if fearful of disturbing her.

            It happened so fast that afterward Cunningham couldn’t remember the belt/leash being yanked out of his hand as the man whirled and took off like an Olympic sprinter, up to full speed after two steps.

            Stunned, Cunningham sat there on the bench.  By the time he slowly rose to his feet, man and dog were half a block away.

“Hey, hey,” Cunningham said, and then as the man disappeared with God between two houses he said it again, “Hey, hey,” not shouting but softly as if talking to himself, trying to remember what he was supposed to say next.

            “Hey, hey.”

            He didn’t bother going after the man.  What would be the point?  He’d never catch him.  He was gone, God with him, and he’d never see either of them again.  He thought fleetingly of contacting the police, but they wouldn’t do anything.  Besides, he’d have to explain what happened, and he couldn’t face the humiliation.  He returned to his car and drove home.


Linda and his wife were in the kitchen where he’d left them.  He could tell from the scorched silence that they’d been at each other again.  They ignored him until he shrugged, lifted his palms, and said, “Couldn’t find her.”

            Then Linda rolled her eyes and said, “Cunningham failing to do something.  Now there’s a shocker.”

            “Well, at least he tried!” his wife shot back.

Although this might have sounded like a defense of her husband, Cunningham knew better.  It was just the old whatever-she-says-I’m-going-to-argue-with gambit.  Sure enough, having fired at Linda, his wife turned her guns on Cunningham.

            “Did you really go look for the dog, or did you just go to a bar and swill beer?”

            It was evidently his wife’s belief that Cunningham spent his waking hours plotting ways to sneak off and “swill” beer.  The fact that he’d not once done so since they’d been married apparently affected her thinking not in the least.  Still, Cunningham had to admit it sounded like a dang good idea.

            “I haven’t had time to swill beer yet today, but I’ll run out right now and swill a little before supper.”

            “Like hell you will!  You’re not going anywhere, Cunningham!”

“Think not, sweetums?  Just watch me.”

            With that Cunningham walked out of the kitchen and into the living room where he plunked himself down on the couch and brooded.


That night, lying in bed, reviewing the day’s humiliations, Cunningham was surprised to find that all in all he hadn’t fared too badly.

Hadn’t he been unshackled for a couple of hours, walking in the sun, breathing freedom’s sweet air?  Several people, including pretty young women, had spoken to him, and quite amiably, not one of them barking “Cunningham!” followed by the invective-of-the-day.  True, he’d had the run-in with those three young toughs, but he’d escaped unpummeled.  Indeed, he’d sent them off on a wild-goose chase, and if they wanted to take out their frustrations on someone, they had his sister-in-law’s address.  (Here, Cunningham spent several happy moments contemplating possible dire consequences for Linda.)  As for his wife, she’d gotten her digs in, but that was nothing new, and in light of what she would’ve done with him if she’d discovered the truth, well, he had to consider himself extremely fortunate.

            The only thing that troubled him was God.  He didn’t like to think of her frightened, horribly mistreated perhaps at the hands of a lunatic.  Lying there in bed staring at the ceiling, he pictured her howling in terror and pain as she underwent a succession of fiendish tortures.  If only he’d hadn’t said her name—that was what set the madman off.

            When in his conjurings the face of the man appeared to him, though, Cunningham couldn’t honestly say it was the face of a torturer.  A sad, suffering soul, yes, but a gentle soul.  More than likely the poor sap’s mania would lead him to worship God, not crucify her.  Cunningham could see him protecting God with his life, lavishing his love and the best of his scant resources on her.  Was God really better off with that sullen, cold-hearted cow Linda?  Hell, no!

            Funny how things worked out.  Generally badly, of course, but once in awhile your number came in.  All a crap shoot, though.  Nothing to account for anything.

            God.  Funny, funny.  He had to chuckle.  Yes, when you thought about it, the scene with that jackass high-tailing it up the street with God in his arms . . .

            Suddenly, Cunningham sat up in bed.

            “Hey!  My belt!  My best belt!  God damn!

Beside him on the bed his wife stirred and mumbled something.  He didn’t catch what she said.  Was she awake?  Her eyes were closed, but she very definitely had a smile on her face.

            Cunningham lay back on the bed and gave himself up to bitterness and something akin to fear.  He’d thought at least he understood that there was nothing to understand, no accountability, no design in anything.  But now he couldn’t be sure even of that.   He felt that once more he’d fallen prey to some scheme of his wife’s, or, worse, that he, his wife, and poor little God were victims of a greater scheme for which he had no name.




(photo by Brooks Lee)