Heaven is Like Waffle House

by Renée K. Nicholson

The sky opens a wide marbled blue when I hear my dog speaking to me. Not barking. Full sentences filled with words. Her deadpan, flat affect and slight stumble registers as something familiar, but not quite. It takes several minutes for me to recognize my golden retriever’s voice sounds identical to Bob Newhart.

She’s always been a bit jowly.

“You know dogs are akin to angels,” she says. “Dog spelled backward is you-know-what.”

I blink. I wonder how long she’s been able to speak. I only taught her sit, shake, stay.

We sit on the patchy grass on an old stadium blanket—wool, a little scratchy—in the shade of the now dead tree. Covered in vines, it resembles a living thing. The sun slants into our hollow from its westward decent from afternoon to dusk. The soft breeze shakes the branches of a nearby dogwood.

“I don’t know why you call it that,” my dog says, cocking her head, ears perked up. “The tree has no canine features at all.”

I just shrug.

Lately, my dog talks to my dead brother, relays these conversations to me in her deadpan Newhartian way.

“He thinks you need more fiber in your diet,” she says. I wave her off and make a mental note to pick up a big box of Shredded Wheat during the next grocery run. I wonder if the giant box of high-end food from Chewy.com can be responsible for her speech.

I notice that my dog is more psychologist-character Bob Newhart than the Vermont-innkeeper one. No other brother Darryl. Makes sense, as much as a talking dog makes sense. She assures me again that my brother’s well, and that heaven is a lot like stopping at Waffle House on a really long road trip when you’re starving hungry.

“But is he well?” I ask and hear my own desperation.

“He says he still feels thirty,” she says, “except when he tries to run.”

She pants and wants a treat, so I give her one of the potato chips I’ve been munching on. When I ask for words of wisdom, she just smacks her lips.

“Don’t ever get two dogs,” she says, failing to recite the rest of Newhart’s line. I scratch behind her ear where I know she likes it. She rolls on her back and over again.

“He says not to stress out about selling the house,” she says. “He likes to remember the times you grilled steak and drank beer. You were one of the only women he knew in this life who preferred a cold beer to rosé or chardonnay.”

I smile—my brother’s fussy, goofy women. Those last months, they all pawed his money and vanished.

I run my hand the length of golden fur, soft between each finger. Only so much she can tell me.

The clouds float on, blocking the sun. The dead leaves scrape against nearby pavement as the wind kicks up and dies down again. My dog and I stretch out next to one another on the old blanket. Above, the indifferent clouds make no patterns at all.

“Relax,” my dog says. Between pants, she adds, “He remembers who was there.”

Renée K. Nicholson is the author of the poetry collections Roundabout Directions to Lincoln Center, the forthcoming Post Script, and co-editor of Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives of Illness, Disability, and Medicine. She is associate professor in the Programs for Multi- and Interdisciplinary Studies at West Virginia University, where she collaborates with WVU Medicine on various Narrative Medicine projects. Her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art and Healing, Poets & Writers, Moon City Review, Gettysburg Review and many other publications. Renée recently successfully completed the Professional Certificate in Narrative Medicine from Columbia University.