Poetry and Prose from the Center for Writers
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Asserted by a Simple Pin
by MELANIE SMITH TODD
This black dog keeps hanging around my apartment. I don’t know anything about dogs, but I think it’s a mutt. It’s a male; I can see that much right away because his tail curves up over his back, revealing an empty flap of skin where his testicles used to be.
I want to keep the dog, but Kate, my girlfriend, is allergic. Not just to dogs; she’s allergic to just about everything a person can be allergic to: cigarettes, grass, birds. Peanuts, pollen, cats. She’s even allergic to latex and nonoxynol-9, which makes sex tricky. She had to get this piece of plastic installed in her uterus because condoms, diaphragms, and sponges give her a rash in her vagina. The hormones in everything else make her crazy. I’ve witnessed both, and I’m not sure which option is worse. When she decided to get the thing, she told me to give her half the money for the appointment, since I was the reason she needed it. Her insurance didn’t pay for the IUD, but it does for her allergy medicine.
“Can’t you just snort some of that stuff up your nose?” I ask after the dog has been here a week, but Kate treats it like a rhetorical question and keeps painting her toenails. It’s December, and even in the south, December is cold. The dog’s not built for this weather, I can tell. He has a thin coat that looks like black velvet, and he’s too skinny, even though I’ve been sneaking him leftovers each night after Kate’s asleep. She keeps telling me not to start doing it, even though she knows I’m already doing it.
Tonight I lie in bed until she rolls off of me and onto her stomach. Once she tucks her arms under her chest, I know she’s out. I put on my slippers and trench coat, grab a cigarette pack and some Oscar Meyers, and sit on our front steps blowing smoke rings at the stars. I prop the door open with one of Kate’s high heels so it won’t lock behind me, then feed the weenies to the dog in small bites, even though he’d eat the things whole if I let him. He’s patient, though, and we sit next to each other shivering, watching the rings grow larger, fainter, until they finally disappear.
I don’t say anything to the dog yet, but he’s quiet and looks like he’d be a good listener. He’s got a square head and soft brown eyes and reminds me of my mother. She wasn’t a good-looking woman; she was big-boned and had a thick jaw and eyes almost exactly like the dog’s. She was patient and quiet like him, too – the kind of woman who wouldn’t take offense to being compared to a dog. There aren’t a whole lot of women like that.
When Kate and I started dating, I thought she was a woman like that. I wasn’t comparing her to a dog then, but I admit I was already comparing her to my mother. My mom was the only woman I could ever talk to and the only family I ever had. Her death, paired with the fact that I was always abnormally shy, made my twenties a little difficult. A few friends would set me up on blind dates a couple times a year, but they gave up after the girls complained that I never asked them questions and answered theirs in monosyllable.
Kate was different, though, or I thought she was. She filled in for one of the proofreaders in the office who left for three months on maternity leave. Sometimes she’d sit on the edge of my desk and correct mistakes over my shoulder, then compliment me on my copy and ad design. By the time the new mom returned, Kate and I had been to dinner four times and to bed once, which is when I found out about her allergies. Despite the rough start, though, Kate kept coming back. I didn’t have to do much talking, and she was fine with my single-word responses. She said she liked quiet men. She said it gave her more time to talk. It wasn’t until she moved in and I started talking that I realized it wasn’t a joke. But she had a decent sense of humor, the sex was good, though I didn’t have much to compare it to, and it was nice having someone at the other end of the sofa. But after living together for four months, I realized what I had originally mistaken for patience was shrewdness, for kindness, condescension, and by the time the dog showed up, I was feeling duped.
Tonight, I feed him six weenies, then let him lick the pink juices off my fingers and the plastic package. His tongue is warm and leaves the hair on the back of my hand sticking up at odd angles. He’s a big dog, and when we sit next to each other, he’s almost as tall as I am. He sticks his nose to my face. I think he can smell my dinner on my breath, even over the Colgate. Or maybe he just likes the smell of toothpaste. I let my mouth hang open a little and my breath pass through my parted lips until he sticks his tongue between them. Afterwards his thin tail thumps against the concrete in apology. I shut my mouth but smile so as not to hurt his feelings.
When I walk to my car, the dog follows. I open the trunk, which is always full of junk. Kate keeps telling me to clean it out, that it affects my gas mileage to carry around an extra fifty pounds of crap, but I could probably live out of my car for a month if I had to, just with the stuff in the back. Even though the apartment is in my name, I like the peace of mind.
The dog sticks his nose in the trunk before the light even kicks on, sniffs my toolkit, noses my gym bag, licks my briefcase; I shove him aside and pull out the fleece blanket I bought to put on the ground in case I ever have to change a flat on the way to work. I’ve been carrying it in my trunk for three years, and I’ve never used it. Kate says this is evidence that I should get rid of it. But I’m using it now.
I close the trunk and head towards the back of the complex, where the dumpsters are kept out of sight behind a square of eight-foot wood fencing and a tall hedge in a flowerbed lined with large gray stones. The fence is left unlocked most of the time so tenants can haul their trash outside whenever they want. The gate squeals in protest. There are two dumpsters and it’s only the cold that keeps the place from smelling like rot. The dog is happy, though. I’ve seen him nosing around the perimeter of the fence every day, but he hasn’t been able to get in until now. He eats a tampon wrapper and a peanut shell, and I put the blanket on the blacktop between the back of the dumpsters and the fence. When I click my tongue at him, he trots over with a corncob in his mouth. I squat down and pat the blanket. The dog paws at it and shoves it around with his nose. He turns in a circle, clockwise, four times before he lies down and starts crunching his corncob. I watch him for a few minutes, worry about his teeth, then head back to the apartment.
I hang my coat in the closet and my keys on the hook by the door, grasping them in my fist so their jangling won’t wake Kate, who likes to sleep with the bedroom door ajar. She says it improves airflow and allows the HEPA filters to pull allergens out of the air, but I think it’s so she can keep an eye on me if I stay up later than she does. I pull the weenie wrapper out of my pocket and wonder why I hadn’t gotten rid of it when I was two feet from a dumpster. Instead, I look into the bedroom to make sure Kate’s still asleep, then lift the lid to the garbage can and shove the wrapper inside. I use an empty paper towel roll to push some coffee grounds and a tin can on top of it so Kate won’t spot it in the morning.
After I’m done, I creep into the bedroom and slip under the covers next to Kate. She throws an arm and a leg on top of me before I can dodge her. I don’t want to wake her up, but I can’t sleep under so much weight, so I tickle her inner thigh until she takes a deep breath and moves away. Just as I’m about to fall asleep, I hear her sigh.
“You smell like that dog,” she says.
I lie still for a few minutes, hoping she’s not fully awake, but her sighs gain in depth and frequency. She shifts from one side to the other. I get up, pull the covers over her. I spend an hour reading about dog training on the internet, then go sleep on the couch.
The next morning, I’m ironing my clothes when Kate shuffles in from the bedroom. I bend down and she kisses my temple, rubs my stubble against the grain, then stands at the fridge, deciding what to have for breakfast. She’s pouring milk over her cereal before she asks about the weenies. I pretend it’s a rhetorical question, but she just asks again, louder. That’s the difference between me and Kate. She never gives up.
“He was hungry,” I say, pushing the tip of the iron into the cuff of my pants.
“Well, now he’s going to be even harder to get rid of. He won’t stop bugging us if you keep feeding him,” she says without looking at me. She’s reading the nutritional information on the box of Kellogg’s.
“He’s not bugging me,” I mutter as I spray a long line of starch across one leg of my pants.
“What?” she asks, turning around.
I clear my throat and scratch my ear. “I said he’s not bugging me.”
She stares at me for a moment with her eyebrows raised, and I think she’s going to keep at me about the weenies, but she just shakes her head. “You’re getting starch all over the linoleum.” She turns back to her Raisin Bran. I stare at the back of her head, willing her to turn around, but I’m not sure what I’d say if she did, and I’m thankful when she doesn’t. I set down the iron and the starch and grab a paper towel.
I pass a pet store every day on my way to work. Tina, our receptionist, gets all of her animal stuff there. She wants kids like most people want to win the PowerBall, but she’s single with bad skin. She jokes that she’d get cats, but says she’d like to have sex before she hits menopause, so she has birds, instead. She has about forty pictures of them on her desk, and she teaches them to say things like “Nevermore” and “Call me Ishmael.” Most of us think she’s a little crazy, but she’s got a good sense of humor about it. I ask her if she’ll come with me to the store at lunch, and she asks if I’m getting a goldfish.
“A dog,” I tell her, even though I’m not.
“I thought Kate was allergic to animals,” she says. I had hoped she’d forgotten, but I should have known better. I’ve worked with Tina for six years. She might forget to give you a message or write an appointment on your calendar, but she’d never forget anything like that.
“She’s on some new medication. For indoor allergies,” I say, which is true, even though Kate swears it won’t work well enough to allow her to live with an animal. Tina gets as excited about this news as she did last month when our boss announced she was pregnant. She’s already bought the baby a rubber teething ring and a stuffed penguin.At the store, the guy behind the counter greets Tina and asks after her birds by name. She introduces him as Bill, then tells Bill I’m getting a new dog, and he shakes my hand and pats me on the back like I’ve just handed him a pink-and-blue cigar.
“Are you getting a purebred or a rescue?” Bill asks, and I sense from the tension in his shoulders that this is a loaded question.
“A rescue,” I say, failing to keep the question out of my voice.
He smiles. “Oh, that’s wonderful! There are so many animals languishing in shelters, dying in droves. Millions every year. It’s America’s Haitian earthquake is what it is. An absolute tragedy. It’s just a shame not to adopt. Not that there’s anything wrong with purebreds, of course,” he says, in case I already own a purebred. I assure him I don’t have any other pets, so for the next half hour, Bill and Tina lecture me on the importance of proper diet and exercise.
“Of course, you’ll want to avoid Purina like the plague. And any other food you find at Wal-Mart? Plague,” Bill says, and Tina nods. “Better yet, maybe you should just avoid Wal-Mart altogether.”
“What’s wrong with Purina?” I ask, and their brows furrow.
“Do you know what the primary ingredient in Purina is?” Bill asks, his voice low as he leans towards me. I shake my head.
“Corn!” the two say in unison.
I think about the dog and his corncob. I pick up a squeaky toy shaped like a hotdog. “How much is this?”
On the way home, I think about how I’m going to hide all the dog stuff from Kate. The passenger seat is so full of bags that I had to strap them in with the belt to keep them from toppling onto the floor. I figure the trunk is the best bet, and I wonder how much more gas that’ll cost me. When I get home, I check for Kate’s car before pulling the bags out. The dog is lying on our doorstep, his head on his paws, his butt on the welcome mat. As soon as he sees me he runs over, ears and jowls flopping. He sticks his face in the bag with box of the treats in it and the plastic rips. He paws at the box while I put the other bags into the trunk. Once I’m done, I open the treats, which are shaped like paw-prints and smell like dead fish, and feed him three. He swallows them without chewing, then drools on the pavement. I pick up the hotdog toy and shake it, but he doesn’t get interested until I toss it onto the grass. We play until six o’clock, when I grab a plastic bowl and fill it with food that has no corn in it. He’s been drinking out of the koi pond, so I don’t bother with the second bowl yet. I glance at my watch and hurry back to the dumpsters, where I deposit the food and the dog. Kate gets home at six-fifteen. After dinner, Kate rakes the extra meatballs into the trash instead of putting them into the refrigerator. I put the salad dressing back in the door, then stare at the near-empty shelves.
“You cleaned out the fridge,” I say. The humidity-controlled crisper is still full, and the milk and butter are still there, but a dozen or so plastic containers aren’t.
“What?” she says, turning around to see what I’m doing. “Oh. Some of that stuff had fur.” I wonder if she chose her words carefully.
“There was some pudding.”
“Is that what it was? I thought it was rotten yogurt.”
“It was pudding,” I say and go outside to smoke.
The dog’s not on the steps when I open the door, but he is when I sit down. I hear him snuffling as he approaches, and I wonder how he can tell the difference between our door and everyone else’s. He wags his tail a little, but stops when he sees my face. “It’s just that I’m not sure why we’re together,” I say. He whines, soft and low, and I take this as an invitation to continue.
“I didn’t expect it to be like this. I haven’t had many girlfriends, you know. I’m what my Mom called ‘painfully shy’.” He cocks his head to one side. “I’m thirty, and she’s only my second real girlfriend. But she’s a girlfriend.”
I put my chin in my hands and blow smoke rings. The dog sighs and licks my cheek.
Sunday is a problem. Kate wants to jog to the park and have a picnic, but the dog keeps following us. We jog for a block, then turn around and lead him back to the apartment. I tell him to stay, but he either doesn’t get it or pretends he doesn’t get it. I suspect the latter. When we start jogging again, he walks in front of Kate and she yells at him, and I have to grab her to keep her from falling.
At the park, he tears across the grass to play with some other dogs. I watch them roll in the dirt and chase each other in circles while Kate shrugs out of her backpack and spreads out a blanket. I unload lemonade and sandwiches from my bag.
Kate hands me my mp3 player and her miniature pink speakers and asks me to find some music. I spend a few minutes chewing ham and cheese, flipping through play lists, and finally settle on Buddy Holly. After two songs, Kate sighs.
“Don’t you have any music from the last two decades?” she asks.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth as I choke down the rest of my sandwich. Before I can answer, I’m distracted by a loud voice, and look up in time to see a tall guy with long hair and work boots waving his hands at the dog. Before I can move, he steps away from the tree his blanket sits under, then lands a kick on the dogs’ left hip. I jump up, sending chips and a dill pickle into the grass, and take two steps forward. Kate’s at my feet, her cup of lemonade hovering a few inches from her lips as she watches.
The dog comes running towards me, whining and favoring his back leg, and I squat down to see if he’s bleeding. He whimpers when I touch his hip, and I stare over his back towards the guy, who’s standing over a cooler and a woman in a halter-top. He grabs a beer from the chest, twists off the top, and lifts it towards me in a toast. I run a hand through my hair, rub the base of my neck, and take the dog’s face between my hands.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” Kate asks, sitting her cup on the blanket.
The dog still has his tail tucked between his legs, but he’s stopped whining. He sticks his head under my armpit like he’s hiding his eyes, but he seems okay. I can feel the guy watching us, and I realize my heart is racing.
“No,” I say.
“Why the hell not?” Kate asks, her voice a few notes higher than her usual pitch.
I press my lips together, shake my head, and keep petting the dog, who has started eating my chips off the ground. I hear Kate sigh and look up in time to see her marching across the grass. I stand up and follow her, but the dog won’t come with me, and I only make it a few yards from the blanket.
Kate stops a couple of feet this side of the ice chest and sticks her finger towards the guy’s face.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, asshole?” she yells at him, and I take a few more steps towards her. I glance back to the dog. He’s lying on the blanket with his good leg over his head, licking himself. I look back to Kate, who has stuck her finger to the guy’s chest.
“Your fucking dog got grass in my potato salad,” he yelled back, and the woman in the halter top stood up next to him, crossing her arms over large breasts.
“I don’t care if the dog took a shit in your potato salad. You don’t treat animals like that,” she said, punctuating her speech by poking his shirt. He moves towards her, but she doesn’t budge, and I think he’s going to punch her in the face. I cross the last few feet of grass and put my hand on Kate’s shoulder, urging her under my breath to come back to our blanket.
“You better drag this bitch out of here, before I kick her ass, too,” he yells at me over Kate’s shoulder, his eyes never leaving her face.
“I’m sorry,” I say and pull her shoulder a little harder.
“What the fuck did you just say to me? Did you just call me sorry, you little prick?” he asks, turning his focus away from Kate and onto me. Instead of pushing his way towards her, suddenly he’s coming at me, and instead of my hand on Kate’s shoulder, the woman’s hands are on his.
Kate calls him white trash, grabs my hand, and stalks back towards the dog, dragging me after her. I look back, afraid the man would punch me in the kidneys if I didn’t watch him, but the woman in the halter-top has pushed him onto the cooler.
“Thanks for all your help back there,” she says, dropping my hand when we get back to our blanket. The dog had eaten the rest of our food and knocked over Kate’s lemonade. “Well, fuck me,” she says.
I look at the grass, clear my throat, then squat down to clean up the mess.
On Monday, I work on a series of full-page ads that aren’t due for a month, just to stay busy. Neither Kate nor I had said much on the way back to the apartment the day before, and we’d said even less when we got there. She’d been too busy fuming, and I’d been too busy thinking. By the time I wake up Monday, I’m tired of thinking. I’ve never been good at making decisions.
I stop by the pet shop on my way home, and Bill acts like I’m an old friend. I know the dog has everything he needs, that I have no reason to be here, but I like looking at all the stuff Bill has crammed onto the shelves. Diapers, carrying cases, sanitary napkins, pink spike-studded leashes. Bill and Tina live in a world I’d never known existed.
“You know, I forgot to show you my latest,” Bill says as I’m examining a package of beef-flavored lollipops. He motions to a large machine next to the fish food. It looks like a cross between an ATM and a soda dispenser.
“Personalized pet tags,” he explains, starts pushing buttons, and the screen lights up. The tags are available in four sizes, ten colors, twenty shapes. I keep my arms crossed as the screen displays one choice, then another. Bill keeps pushing buttons until he reaches a tag shaped like a hamburger. “That one is my favorite.”
I turn for the door, and he calls after me.
“Don’t you want a tag for your new dog?”
“Maybe later,” I say and shut the door behind me.
When I get home, Kate’s car is in her space, but the dog isn’t on the steps. Inside, I put my briefcase by the door, and I’m about to walk back outside when Kate comes into the room. She’s wearing makeup, my favorite dress, and a smile.
“Where are you going? Aren’t we going to talk about it?” she asks, and her smile falters a little.
“Maybe later,” I say and shut the door behind me. I sit down on the steps and wait a few minutes, but I don’t light a cigarette this time. I’ve gotten used to smoking with the dog at my side, and it feels strange to be here alone, even though I sat outside alone for months because of Kate’s allergies, and sat inside alone for months before that because I’d smoke two packs a day out of boredom. The dog still hasn’t shown up when the last streaks of pink have faded from the sky, and I start getting worried. I head towards the dumpsters, and as soon as I round the corner of the building, my heart feels heavy in my chest.
The door is closed, and as I approach, I can see the hasp is closed, too. When I get to the fence, I try to open the thing, but the doors have settled off-kilter, and the hinge is jammed. I want to call out to him to see if he’s inside, and it’s only then that I realize I still haven’t given him a name. He lets me know he’s there, though, because I hear the thump of his tail. I try to pry the hinge open, and the metal rakes the top layer of skin off my fingers. The dog whines, high-pitched, nervous.
“Hey! Hey, are you stuck in there, bud? It’s okay, man. I’ll be right back.” I hate the idea of leaving him, but I’m not sure what else to do. I run back into the apartment, and Kate’s standing over the stove making burgers.
“Kate! The dog’s stuck in the fence with the dumpsters, and the door’s jammed. See if anyone’s still at the office while I try to get him out,” I say, panting more from anxiety than exertion. She looks at me with her head cocked to one side, just like the dog does when he’s trying to figure out if I’m about to feed him.
“The office closes at five. You know that,” she says, not stirring from the half-moon rug in front of the stove.
“Well, call the manager or something. He’s been in there since last night with no water. He can’t stay in there until morning,” I tell her. I can feel the panic rising in my throat despite trying to keep my voice level.
“Why are you getting so upset over this? It’s a dog. He’s in a fence full of garbage. He’ll find something to eat, he won’t die of thirst, and someone can let him out in the morning,” she says, turning back to the pan on the stove. I stand in the doorway, waiting for her to say more, but she doesn’t. The scrape of the spatula against the copper pan gives me a chill and the hair on my arms stands on end. Finally, she turns back to look at me.
“You’re letting the heat out,” she says, and she watches me with her eyes narrowed, waiting to see what I’ll decide to do. I back onto the steps and shut the door.
At my car, I pop the trunk and shove a sack of dog food aside. I open my tool kit and shuffle things around, catching my thumb on a loose nail before I find my hammer. I head back towards the dumpsters and notice Kate watching me from the steps, but I refuse to turn around to see if she follows. At the fence, I pause for a moment to consider the best way of proceeding. I could probably pry off a couple of planks of wood, but I figure that might get me thrown out of the complex. I aim for the hinge, instead, but after the first blow, Kate shrieks at me.
“Have you lost your mind? What are you doing?” she says from a few feet away, keeping her distance, as if she’s worried I might turn the hammer on her.
“I’m getting my dog,” I say, and turn back to the lock.
“He’s a dog, not your dog, for Christ’s sake. You’re being ridiculous,” she said, her voice breaking under the strain of her increased volume. “I should have called the pound the first day he showed up.”
I ignore her and hit the hasp once, twice. I can hear the dog whimpering inside between the blows.
“I’m allergic! He can’t live in the apartment with us,” she says, still screaming at me.
“Well, he can damned well live in the apartment with me,” I say, screaming back, terrified and energized by the feeling of my voice in my throat. I turn back to the gate, and this time when I hit it, the entire hasp gives way, and the door falls open a little. The dog is inside, cowering between the two dumpsters with his ears down and his tail between his legs. I squat down and pat my thighs, and he scoots forward, belly to the ground until he reaches me. I take his head in my hands and stare at him. He licks my face. When I stand up and walk away, he follows me so closely I can feel the warmth of his body rising to meet my hand. Neither of us looks at Kate as we pass.
When we get to the steps, he sits on the mat while I open the door. I walk inside and hold the door open, but he doesn’t follow me this time. I have to cluck my tongue at him and pat my leg to get him over the threshold. Once he’s in, he hangs around the door for a few minutes, too wary to proceed any further, but after I start walking around and talking to him, he relaxes. After ten minutes, he’s sniffing everything, especially the hamburgers. I put Kate’s plate on the floor, and he eats the burger in two bites, then licks the grease so enthusiastically he pushes the dish across the room. He looks at me, wags his tail a little, and burps. I smile down at him.
“Welcome home, Buddy.”
Tuesday after work, Kate moves her things while Buddy and I are at the park. I keep thinking she’ll hang around waiting for another confrontation, so when we get back to the apartment, I don’t bother going inside. Instead, I take Buddy downtown to Bill’s store to waste some time. Besides, he needs a nametag.
When we walk in the door, a tattooed kid with a crew cut and gauges in his ears sits in Bill’s chair behind the counter. He doesn’t bother to look up, but he turns the volume on his mp3 player so high I can hear the music through his earbuds. Buddy follows me to the tag machine and sniffs around in a basket of chew toys while I push buttons and stick money into the slot at my waist. The machine thanks me and spits out the tag and my change. The little circle of gold has “Buddy” and my phone number and address printed on it, and it’s still warm from the machine when Bill walks in the door with boxes of Chinese take-out.
“Hey, you came back for the tag after all,” he says, setting the boxes on the counter. He drops to his knees as soon as he sees Buddy next to me. “And you brought the new addition. Come here, boy!”
Buddy takes his head out of the toy basket and heads over to Bill with a plastic chicken hanging out of his mouth. He wags his tail, squishes the chicken and makes the thing cluck like it’s dying, which I guess is the point. Bill takes the chicken, grabs the dog’s head in his hands, and leans in for a kiss, but as soon as Buddy licks his face, Bill draws back.
“Your dog…you said he was a rescue, right?” Bill asks me, turning Buddy’s head to the right, left, then peering under his chin at the only white fleck of fur on his dark body.
“Well, he was a stray,” I explain, feeling like Bill had caught me doing something I shouldn’t have been doing.
“Hm.” Bill pats Buddy’ head and then walks behind the counter, sticks his pinky finger in the hole in the kid’s ear, tugs, and reclaims his chair. He swivels around to face a bulletin board covered with layers of memos, newspaper articles, photos, and recipes for homemade dog treats and sifts through the top few sheets until he finds the one he wants. He pulls the tack out carefully and cups it in his hand before slowly handing the flier to me.
It’s done on construction paper: a picture of a small smiling woman, a smaller smiling boy, and the dog – who I have to admit looked to be smiling himself – pasted in a slightly crooked fashion onto a yellow piece of paper with a ragged edge. The words “Lost Dog” appear in large letters above the photo, and underneath, “We Miss Max,” both printed in a deliberate but uncertain hand. I can picture the boy, red crayon in hand, laboring over the sign.
It had occurred to me before. There were always signs for lost dogs hanging up at the park. Some of them were pretty clever. Wanted signs done up in Western themes. Neon paper and glow-in-the-dark ink. That kind of thing. I could have resisted them all. In fact, I kept an eye on them, thinking if I ever saw one for Buddy, I’d smuggle it into the garbage.
The dog has the little white fleck of fur on his throat. I hand the paper back to Bill, who is nice enough not to say anything. He nudges the kid in the ribs and jerks his head towards the storeroom until he takes the hint and walks away.
Buddy has wandered away from me, down the nearest aisle. I cluck my tongue at him a couple of times and he turns away from a collection of dog deodorant and walks back to me. I stare at him for a long time. He stares back, even though all the experts online say dogs aren’t supposed to do that to their masters. I wonder if that’s his way of telling me I’m not his master. He licks my chin.
“Want me to take him over?” Bill asks.
“No, I’ll do it. I should do it.”
He flips through an old Rolodex, jots down a name and address on the flap of his Chinese takeout box, tears it off, and hands it to me. It smells like moo goo gai pan, and Buddy sniffs at my fingers as I crush it and his nametag into my fist.
I sit in the car outside the house, staring at the blue front door until I start to worry the neighbors will think I’m a stalker. The dog is asleep on his back in the back, his mouth open, a circle of drool turning the grey upholstery charcoal. He perks up when I get out of the car, and his tail wags the minute he looks out the window. He almost knocks me over when I open his door, and I have to struggle to get his leash on before he bolts up the sidewalk, his high-pitched yipping barks echoing off the neighbor’s houses.On the front porch, he quiets down, but he’s shaking he’s so excited. I tell him to sit, but his butt hovers two inches above the welcome mat, his wagging tail making his whole body tremble. I ring the bell and hear muffled voices and footsteps stumbling down stairs before the door opens.
“Max! Mom!” the boy screams, and the dog moves so quickly he pulls the leash from my hands and barrels into the foyer, knocking an umbrella stand on its side and the boy on his back. The kid screeches so loudly I’m afraid the dog’s attacking him until I hear his laughter. The dog moves in frantic circles around him, sticking his tongue in the kid’s hair, mouth, ears, nose. I decide to leave while I can, but I’m only halfway down the sidewalk when she calls me back.
“Wait!” the woman says, and I turn around to see her at the bottom of the steps. She’s wearing a sweater, yoga pants, red and green polka dotted toe socks. The tips of her toes just touch a long crack in the sidewalk. “Wait. Don’t go.”
“I…Bill gave me your address,” I say through parched lips. She looks over her shoulder at the boy, who has moved onto the porch, and the dog, who has followed him. When she turns back to me, tears run down her face. She has shallow, half-moon creases between her nose and each corner of her mouth. I wonder if she got them from smiling or frowning.
“I cry over commercials for laundry detergent,” she says, shaking her head. She wipes her eyes in the crook of her elbow, laughs, and I stop wondering about the wrinkles. She looks back up at me, smile and green eyes glistening, and I stare at my feet.“I got him some stuff,” I say and head for the car. I sling five bulging plastic bags over my arms and close the trunk with my elbow. When I set it all at her feet, I feel like a moron. I shove my hands in my pockets, grasping my keys in my left, the dog’s tag in my right.
“I didn’t know what he’d need.”
Melanie Todd lives in south Louisiana with her husband, children, dog, cat, parakeet, and chickens. She teaches high school English, writes post-apocalypse fiction, and in her spare time, makes soap and rehabilitates random orphaned wildlife.