The dachshund looked like a slab of ancient beef jerky, dabbed with glue and rolled in lint. It teetered on three stumpy little legs that had dried in unnatural positions while the fourth had cracked clean off, leaving a bit of slightly ragged hem, dog fringe. Though there didn’t seem to be much need for a flea collar, one hung around the petrified neck like a reminder of better days for dog and fleas alike. The eyes were dusty raisins. There was no way to examine the mouth without broken jaw bits ending up in either hand, but the muzzle was slightly parted, and the tongue could be seen to have receded all the way back into the dark cavity of the throat like a frightened snail. The dachshund felt warm to the touch, but that was from being left sitting in the sun. If you sniffed your fingers after stroking the hard brown flanks, you could still detect a faint, undeniable odor of dog.
“This is Fritzy,” said the Rehydrator.
Everybody stepped back from the display table at this announcement, as if it were obscene that something so dead should bear a name—and especially a name spoken with such obvious fondness.
The people of Gasoline Lake, Oregon, looked with renewed suspicion at the bulky truck and the man who had driven it into town in the heat of this December afternoon, when ordinary folk were just rising from a daylong sleep in cool bunkers. They had heard of Rehydrators, but never seen one. What he wanted here was anybody’s guess. The tall, gaunt man wore a shiny new Mylar hat out from under which poked wispy strands of thin red hair. His nose was badly burned. He wore a robe of white fabric, blousy enough to hide all the pore-sucking pumps and reprocessing tubes he must be wearing beneath it. Most of the Gas Lake gawkers were hardly so modest, even in late afternoon; they wore their pisspores proudly, in plain sight, and, where not sucked at by the conservation suits, their skin was painted with sunban oils, or artificially blackened by melanin therapy. Facial features showed a mixed crowd of Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, and Pacific Rim. The Rehydrator scanned them as if they were a book he’d heard curious things about and immensely looked forward to reading.
“Fritzy was born in Gasoline Lake,” he said. “If you check his tags, you’ll see they were issued right here about twenty years ago. Expired by now, I guess. I’m just bringing him home, folks. Bringing him home.”
“I’ll give you fifty bucks for it,” said Earl Taws, owner of the Miscellany Market, whose display window was crowded with deflated soccer balls, purses of cracked pink plastic, faded Hello Kitties, unstrung squash rackets, and other dusty, sun-bleached objects. “It’ll go good with my new wooden Indian,” he said, at which there was general laughter.
“That’s a generous offer, sir,” the Rehydrator said, “but I’m afraid this dog is not for sale. It’s a gift. A gift to your town’s benefactor, Galvin Orlick himself.”
“Galvin Orlick?” The name went up from every mouth.
“Fritzy here was Mr. Orlick’s dog. I’m returning him to his rightful owner.”
“Galvin Orlick’s been deader than that dog of his for twenty years, mister.”
“Dead, you say?” the Rehydrator asked, with a broad wink at all of them. “What makes you think that Fritzy’s dead?”
“Well, shit,” said Marlys Runyon, giving the dachshund a sound whack with the back of her hand. “How did I get that idea?”
Everyone laughed, and Marlys squinted at the Rehydrator with an ironic grin, the end of a long string of baccorish clenched in her brown, steadily chewing teeth.
The Rehydrator laughed right along with all the rest. “And Galvin Orlick is dead, you say? Now, how did that happen?”
“Just like his dog here,” Marlys said. “He dried out.”
“That’s what I thought you’d say, and to that, I have this answer: what’s been dehydrated can be rehydrated. I have no doubt that was Mr. Orlick’s original intention—both in his case and in Fritzy’s here.”
“You saying this dog ain’t dead?” said Earl Taws.
“I’m not saying a thing I can’t prove. And a demonstration is worth any amount of talk.”
“Don’t go ruining that dog by getting it all soggy. My offer still stands—fifty dollars for the beast, as is. Can’t promise to take it off your hands if you wreck it up.”
“The dog’s not for you, sir, and I intend him to be in proper shape for presentation to his rightful owner. Now, please, everyone, stand back.”
“You saying you plan to revive old Orlick?” said Marlys, coming closer.
“Please, ma’am, you must stand back.”
The Rehydrator fit a mask of shiny white plastic fiber over his face; his eyes bulged out of clear goggles. He reached under the display table and brought up a black valise and a big plastic tub. When he opened the case, rows of clear vials with black caps clinked inside it.
“Now, I’m going to need some water.”
The crowd took on a menacing demeanor, none meaner than Norris Culp, C.P.A., who took it upon himself to speak for the others. “If this is what you’ve been leading up to, you charlatan, you’ll end up wishing you had that dog for a pillow tonight in the city jail!”
“No need to threaten me, Sheriff, if that’s what you are. Just talking to myself.” As he climbed a short flight of folding steps and pushed through a canvas flap into his truck, several watchers laughed at Norris; one said, “Howdy, Sheriff.”
The Rehydrator reappeared with a plastic jug full of pure blue water, five gallons of it, cradled in his arms. All through the crowd, dry tongues darted like lizards over lips parched and cracked as alkali flats. Eager
fingers snatched at plastic tubes and sucked at the hot, stale, recirculated water till their pisspores were half-empty, but it didn’t satisfy. The water in that jug looked fresh and cool as if it had just been hauled sweating from a deep spring.
“Yuh’re not gonna waste that on a dog, are yuh?”
“No more than necessary, citizen; fear not.”
“You—you better be careful,” said Norris, showing the other face of the law now. “That’s an open invitation to thieves.”
“Thieves, Sheriff? In Gasoline Lake? You all seem law-abiding citizens to me.”
He set Fritzy gently in the plastic tub, then delicately upended the jug and shook it like a vinegar bottle, sprinkling the corpse with what seemed an endless shower of clean water. To the citizens of Gasoline Lake, it looked like enough water to bring back the forests and crops that were only photographic memories to most of them; water enough for bathing and swimming and for sheer luxurious waste—which is what the Rehydrator seemed to be doing. Wasting water on a dead dog!
But when he set the jug down, they saw that he’d used hardly any. Thirst had deluded them yet again.
The dog now sparkled with bright drops of water like so many little lenses stuck in the tufted hair. Not many Gas Lakers would have missed the chance to suck that water from poor old Fritzy’s hide if the Rehydrator had turned his back. But he didn’t give them a chance. Taking two vials from his valise, he emptied them simultaneously into the tub, letting the streams mingle in midfall. White, reeking fumes volcanoed toward the unblinking sun. The Rehydrator pulled on a pair of thick black gloves and bent headlong into the chemical steam, busying himself over Fritzy. When the clouds dissipated, they saw him massaging the beast, working the stinking potion into flesh and fur, palpating the creature’s gummy eyelids, bathing its stump, forcing his fingers down its throat and working elasticity into the suddenly lolling pink tongue. Apart from the mask, he resembled nothing so much as an ordinary man bathing a dog—a felony performed only rarely in the past three decades, and always in great privacy; a once-familiar sight that now held the audience so enrapt that he might have been building ziggurats single-handed or demonstrating practical levitation, like any other fakir.
And strangest of all, Fritzy, like any ordinary dog, was soon shivering and whining at the water’s touch, licking his thin black lips, his shiny brown eyes bulging in a pantomine of terror, as if he were being flayed for the oven rather than simply returning to a semblance of lively, clean-smelling dog—a dog none would mind petting till he’d taken his first good roll in the carcass of a worm-eaten crow.
The crowd broke into gasps of amazement, then into applause. This was too much excitement for Fritzy. He broke from his groomer, jumped out of the tub and straight into the dust of the roadside, where he rubbed his muzzle in the dirt, dog tags jangling, and rolled and wriggled on his back in the road with three legs kicking air and the one stump twitching as if it would have liked to join them. Then he jumped to his feet and shook wildly, spattering the nearest gawkers with mud and grit and some of that stinging spray that had accomplished the act of revivification.
Norris Culp looked into the smoking tub, then quickly poked under the display table to see where the counterfeit wooden dog had gone. The Rehydrator grinned and bowed like a magician. He let Fritzy scamper through the crowd, and finally called him over and fed him a bone-dry biscuit, watching the faces soften toward him as the first few folks came sidling up to ask how it was done. He shook his head—“Trade secret”—and then their hands, politely declining offers of dinner, noting the way they looked at that nearly full bottle of pure blue water. There was a great deal of excitement in the crowd, but it didn’t distract him. He was the only one, in fact, who noticed when Marlys Runyon—whose name he had yet to learn—took off running.