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by Alex Juffer

The old man, Ezra, painted his dog, Hugo, missing for 87 days, and hung it on the wall next to all the previous attempts. Each one looked progressively less like his dog, Ezra thought, although the general features stayed the same—giant shaggy head, sensitive brown eyes, stately whiskers, tufts of gray along the jowls. He was running out of wall space, but none of the portraits captured Hugo and weren’t ready to be a MISSING sign.

Ezra had a large shaggy head too. Women used to love holding his head with both hands, doting, but no one had touched him in a long time. 

At night, he’d let all the street dogs into his house, a flat one-bedroom with a fenced-in gravel backyard. He’d leave food, water, and treats out. The dogs would prance in and out at various times, party guests with competing plans.

Upon waking, Ezra would drink some coffee, eat figs, and settle onto his stool.

On the 93rd morning, Hugo sauntered into the house. Ezra had his eyes closed to mentally conjure the tail he was painting, sweeping his brush across the canvas to replicate the golden fan that drooped off Hugo’s rear end. He could no longer tell if he was imagining a memory of Hugo or an amalgam of every work he had finished so far.

Hugo sat behind Ezra and watched for a while. His eyes were filmy and mucus dripped from his wrinkled purple lips, yet he swished his tail against the ground in contentment.

Ezra knew the painting was poor. The ears were all wrong, for one, and Hugo slouched more. Still, he wanted to finish it. He could start hanging the paintings on the outside of the house.

Hugo strolled out the front door. He’d check in again, soon.

Alex Juffer is a graduate of the MFA program at Southern Illinois University. Recently, he has worked at Southern New Hampshire University, the Loft Literary Center, and the University of Minnesota, teaching literature, creative writing, and public speaking. His work has been previously published in Epoch, Cleaver, Monkey Bicycle, Hobart, The Los Angeles Review, and more.

Lead image: “Brushes” (via Flickr user Redmond)