I walk the dogs at 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Each morning before work, and each evening after, I take SEPTA to Jodie’s apartment, and trudge up the three flights to unlock the door. Her place is that of an adult—full of things like Kitchen Aid appliances, small wooden bowls nestled inside other bowls, expensive, unopened (!) wine bottles resting sideways on a silver wine rack from Crate & Barrel. Items and furniture from somewhere other than IKEA, and two embroidered dog beds that look more expensive than my futon.
“Take anything you want,” she urged me toward the end, but her clothes were too small and her feet too big. “Take the armoire, take the faux antique trunk.” But every action requires more energy than I can currently expend. A rental truck. Organization. Friends I don’t have in this new city.
Today, as always, the dogs are glad to see me. I make my entrance three times in a row, just to be greeted again and again by their wagging tails. Junie, the black lab, follows me from room to room, certain I’m about to do something interesting. Agnes, the Welsh Corgi, eyes me with suspicion, like I might leave with her pewter water dish. To please her, I do a little impromptu dance, my winter boots clunking against the hardwood floor. “Ta-da!” I always finish with a flourish of jazz hands.
The dogs don’t know what to make of me. They have not been taught how to howl their applause.
We move along the path beside the Schuylkill River, the gray and choppy water unwinding in front of us. They pull me along, tugging, industrious, sniffing every garbage can and peeing on every fence post.
When we arrive at the dog park, they barely allow me to take off their leashes before they bound around with their dog friends. Even Agnes, the cautious Corgi, gets caught up in the excitement and barks like it’s the end of time.
The other dog owners stand around in their windbreakers and sneakers. We say hi and talk about the weather. I can never recall the names of the owners, but I know the dogs: Bogart, Keegan, Oliver, Blackie.
An impossibly thin woman in a threadbare coat gestures at her skittish Greyhound, Bones. She needs tips for how to keep her dog from howling when she leaves the house. “I mean, the neighbors are threatening to call the cops!” The others tell her to leave on the radio to NPR, to buy him a cat friend, to purchase tiny dog ear plugs. They have many ideas for how to work it out.
Junie has what seems to be an ongoing conflict with an aggressive German Shepherd named Snowball. Snowball is an oversized pup with big paws, galloping about, trying to bite Junie’s tail. The owner, oblivious, talks in Russian on her phone while taking huge gulps from a giant Starbucks coffee. “Can you please control your dog?” I yell to her, this ditzy blond in pink sweatpants with the word Lucky written across her ass.
She clucks her tongue at the dog, who immediately drops into a sitting posture. “He very bad dog,” she says, shaking her finger at him.
Maybe we will become friends. Maybe not.
From the people at the dog park, I learn what dogs remember. Smells and being punished. Their noses imprint with people and locations. These owners can tell true stories about dogs lost at New Jersey rest stops, who somehow, though covered with ticks and brambles, found their way home three weeks and five hundred miles later. They once heard about a Standard Poodle reunited with his owner after a five-year separation. The dog still remembered that with this guy he learned how to rear up on his hind legs to beg for a piece of chicken.
“Aren’t there some really dense Cocker Spaniels out there who can’t find their way back from the mailbox? How about the dogs who bite their owners in the face when they return from Iraq?” I demand to know. “Or the dogs who eat the new baby out of jealousy?”
They stare back at me, eyebrows up. “That’s an urban legend about eating the baby,” says the owner of Frankie, a rambunctious terrier. “And I bet they blamed a Pit Bull.” I expect the rest of them to turn on me, but they don’t. Instead, they reassure me: there are many bad dogs. But really, who wants to talk about them.
I bring the dogs back to her apartment, feed them, wish them well, and skip toward the door. They follow me, confused that I’m leaving. Where on earth can I be going? Junie licks my ankle.
I lock the door. “See ya later!” I trill. “Have a good dream!” I sprint down the hallway now, guilty and gleeful to be free.
What do the dogs do all day alone in my friend’s apartment? One might wonder, if one were given to such musings. Stare out of the window at the waves, a strip of which you can see if you turn your head just so—the view Jodie told me is what sold her on the place? “It’s prime real estate,” she explained to me over the phone. “Come see for yourself.”
And so I did.
We didn’t have time to prepare. That’s the thing with cancer. She looked a little peaked and then maybe fatigued and then there was blood in unexpected places, but neither of us thought it was that bad, but then we learned it was the bad kind of cancer, not the good kind where they just lop off your breasts.
The dogs and I had been previously acquainted on other visits, of course, but I didn’t sign up for this level of responsibility. I didn’t sign up for the old dog, Junie, with her flakey nose and threadbare tail or the high-strung Agnes, who fears everything from tree shadows to a man wearing a pom-pom winter cap. They’re a lot of work, and I have things to do. I have my own apartment to unpack and emails to send and cupboards to arrange in this new city, this new apartment, this new life. I need time to get used to the creaks and groans of my shitty one bedroom apartment, the fear that it might be haunted, to the sounds of the neighbors upstairs who spend most nights sounding as if they are rolling a marble back and forth across the floor.
We reach an agreement. They are not to expect too much from me. I pat their heads hello, three taps, four, at the most, and then they get fed. I sit at the edge of the sofa while they eat, sloppily, crazily, the older dog continuing to come into the room between wolfing bites to make sure I haven’t left. I perch on the cushion because the sofa is covered in dog hair, these dogs, they ran the place when Jodie was alive; they covered the place in their fur. When they’re done eating, we get the leashes. She has taught them to sit when the leashes come out, but as soon as I unlock the door, both of them bound out of the door like we’re on a sudden police mission to catch the bad guys.
I find Agnes in the laundry basket. She can’t seem to be cajoled out of it, even when I offer her a tasty piece of only slightly hard cheese. I tip the basket over, and she falls with it, sideways, but stays inside. I grab at her collar and pull. She resists, but in this polite way. Finally, I pull her free, and set the basket upright again. As soon as I walk toward the door, she jumps back in. We go through this dance a few more times. “Why?” I ask her. “Why do you need to be in the basket with Jodie’s dirty laundry?” It occurs to me that she likes to be there because it still smells like Jodie.
You can’t explain to a dog that she won’t be coming back, and even if you could, would it hurt so much to let her keep a piece of Jodie around, an athletic sock, a pair of gym shorts?
I leave Agnes and go into the living room to have a nice long sob on the sofa. The lab, distressed by the weepy sounds, tries to distract me with her favorite rope toy, bringing it up and shaking it against my knees like, “Look at me! I’m fun!”
Jodie thought of everything. This maker of eternal to-do lists has arranged for others to come and pick up her things. A blender here, a sofa there, this one gets the measuring cups. She wants nothing to go to waste, and has entrusted her spare keys to the landlord.
Now, whenever I unlock the apartment, things are missing. The coat rack, who used to greet me like a friend with one hand extended, has disappeared, along with the bookshelf and the collection of blue bottles along her windowsills, those too have gone away. I imagine the endless stream of friends of hers I never got a chance to meet coming in and out, Jack, her landlord, letting them in to take what she’s left for them and go their merry way.
This slow vanishing gives me an eerie, tickling sensation along the back of my neck, like a ghost is trailing its finger there, saying, How are you? I don’t like the unexpectedness of it, and now, when I open the door, I do it with one eye closed to prepare myself for whatever else might be gone.
Not the dogs. The dogs are always there, waiting.
Once the sofa disappears, they seem to enjoy the extra space to run around, to chase each other. Even Agnes gets into it.
The married ex-boyfriend wants me to return to Florida. “Don’t you miss the sunshine?” he asks in his deep, radio announcer’s voice. “Don’t you miss the salty air and swooping seagulls?”
“I don’t miss the cockroaches,” I say. “I don’t miss the tourists and seniors citizens who clog up the roadways.” He would like for me to imagine the past without these unpleasant things, in the same way that he would like me to forget about the pesky wife. If you listen to him, it’s as if she’s just a detail to be ironed out.
“Come home,” he begs. “Come home and I will build you a sand castle to live in.”
“Not by the sea,” I warn. “If you build it by the sea, it will surely be demolished.”
Dogs must be washed in the bathtub, at least once a month, in order to keep them from smelling like something that has just washed ashore. I read that online. I’m getting most of my information online these days.
They do everything sloppy. Junie, when she drinks, goes at it with a gusto that causes the water to ripple out of the sides of the dish and sprinkle the floor. When they scratch, they scratch hard, they pant hard, they have no decency when it comes to using the bathroom. Everywhere they go, they leave pieces of themselves, so that when I get back to my apartment, I find my sweater covered in their hair.
I worry that the nasty wet dog smell has begun to emanate from my clothes on the subway. I scoot away from the man next to me, noticing all of the white hairs on my coat, dotting it here and there and everywhere like something from a Dr. Seuss book. There is a certain etiquette to the subway, we must not make eye contact, and, even if we are pressed up against each other so that my nose is nearly in the crook of your neck, we will agree not to acknowledge it, please, to pretend that it is completely normal for me to be physically closer to you than anyone in my life in a long time.
Jodie was always ahead of me—the first one to lose her virginity in eleventh grade, the first to drop acid in college, to get married and then divorced, the first to move away, the first to get a deadly disease. I cannot forgive her for always having to be first in everything.
I have found work at a lovely nonprofit specializing in helping the wrongfully accused get out of prison. The people are nice, but they are also very earnest about saving lives, so you can imagine that there’s not a lot of joking around. Still, I wish that they could lighten up on occasion. In the few months I’ve been there to help with marketing, I’ve learned more than you ever want to know about the death penalty. Lethal injection, death by firing squad, hanging. You wouldn’t believe the many ways people can be put to death. I learned that most states have lethal injection, which might, at first, sound like the easiest way to go. Actually, it’s not. Actually, they have to shave off the hair on your arm first and they still strap you in with leather bands so that you have no way of escaping. They secure your head too, so that you can’t see the shot going into your body; won’t know the exact moment of your death.
It’s like how they put down dogs. One quick shot to knock you out, and then the real bad stuff goes in your veins and stops your heart in an instant, like magic.
After work, I take them to the park. I’m barely paying attention, and Junie suddenly lurches forward. I drop my coffee, trying to pull her back, but the leash slips out of my grasp and she goes bounding down the sidewalk after something—a gray squirrel. I yell after her, but her doggie instincts are too strong, she must, must, must chase the squirrel, it’s written into her DNA, and even as I see the squirrel running toward the busy street, I think, No way would the universe let this happen. Junie leaps after the squirrel, toward oncoming traffic and then I see her snap back. A man walking his own dog, a prim Lhasa Apso, has stepped on her leash in the nick of time, saving us all from a terrible, bloody death. The squirrel too has made a valiant escape under a parked car.
I thank the man. He says, “Hey, it happens.” and continues on, his Lhasa Apso the picture of excellent doggie behavior.
“Bad!” I say to Junie. My hands shake. “Bad dog!” Both she and Agnes shrink into themselves, tails tucked, Junie trying to both become invisible and to comfort me by licking my face.
For a while, Jodie and I pretended like she would be coming home from the hospital any day. We talked about how excited the dogs would be. She worried they wouldn’t recognize her, that she smelled different, like Lysol and disinfectant and illness. She did smell funny—odd, like plastic. We joked about it and then moved on to other topics, like who we liked better: that Caesar guy or The Dog Whisperer? We both agreed Caesar was a bit full of himself.
The married ex has opinions about dogs. He’s fond of them actually, he tells me in a whispering voice that suggests the wife is lurking nearby. Usually, he waits until she’s asleep to call, but even then, he can’t shake the idea that she might have the phone bugged. He waxes on about the dogs of his youth. “Didn’t you ever have any pets?”
“We didn’t have time for pets,” I tell him. “My mother was a single mom. I was the pet. She took me outside to go to the bathroom, put food in my bowl when I needed to be fed, occasionally brushed me.”
He laughs. He always thinks I’m joking when I feel like I’m revealing something very personal and poignant about myself.
Yes, he continues, he’s fond of dogs, but he doesn’t see himself being the owner of one, let alone two. They’re so needy with their sad eyes and their ticks and fleas. “I need something that doesn’t require a lot of care.”
“Like a mistress,” I suggest.
“Don’t be silly,” he says. “You’re not taking those dogs in. You’re not a dog person.”
“No, you’ve never been a fan, not since I’ve known you.” He states this with such confidence that I tell him he’s wrong, even though I’m not so sure.
She made a list for me. Vet’s name and address, type of food they will eat or not eat, what to do if one of them vomits up the squeaky part of a toy. And, even though she was clearly exhausted, she went over each item. I maintained eye contact to show that yes, I understood. I was on the same page. We would get this done. Count on me.
While she went through the list, I thought of all of the things she had done for me since we were kids. She broke up with my college boyfriend, pretending to be me over the phone while I paced in the background, my hand clasped over my mouth to keep from bursting out into hysterical laughter. When he fought back, I heard her say, “I would never in a million years stay. Oh, one good reason why not? Because you’re an asshole.” She returned clothes for me when I lost the receipts. In turn, I wrote her final paper on Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” I cooked us dinner. She picked up the tab when we went out. She laughed at my stupid jokes. I gave it to her straight when something she wore looked bad. It seemed like a pretty fair trade.
“I have set up a fund,” she said.
“A dog fund. You know, so you don’t have to spend your money while I’m gone.”
She explained how it would work, this thing I started to think of as the “I Don’t Trust You” trust fund.
“Ohhh….” I nodded. “You think I will let them starve. You think I will leave them tied up outside of Starbucks and skip town.”
She said, “This is not about you.” Her voice brittle; her jaw clenched. “Okay? Please don’t make this about you. This is for my peace of mind.”
I told her I had to go, making up a story about how I was in the middle of a really big case at work, this guy has only hours to go before he might be wrongfully put to death. I promised that the next time I visited, I’d bring her something from the dogs, a chunk of fur or an unnecessary molar. She pretended to laugh, but her eyes were shiny and very brown, almost as if she might cry. I left before that could happen.
Here’s a story I know I told her. For my eighth birthday, my mom bought me an aquarium with two black Mollies in it. I named them Bob and Shirley, put the tank on the bookshelf in my bedroom, and was enamored with them for about two days. Then, it got to be a drag to have to feed them every day and to clean the tank. So, I started dumping extra food into the water, taking giant finger pinches of flaky food and coating the top of the water. Soon, the fish were swimming in a murky tank with green algae growing up the sides.
For a brief period of time of after-school band practice and sleepovers at friend’s house, I forgot about them entirely. I only remembered when, one morning, I stepped on the petrified body of Bob, who had thrown himself out of the tank in desperation. Shirley, I learned soon after that, bobbed belly up at the top of the tank, one of her gills eaten clean off. I told this story to her once, and she said, “What about your goddamn mom? Who lets a kid take care of anything? That’s just bad parenting!”
That is why I loved her.
I still dream about the dead fish, of being stuck in traffic or stuck in a hot air balloon or behind a wall of slow-moving zombies, unable to get to them in time. Over the years, the fish die again and again in my dreams before I can save them.
One of the dogs has shit in the middle of the daisy-covered rug. My guess is that it’s Junie, though both slink underneath the coffee table, ashamed, neither able to betray the other. I don’t clean it up right away, even though I can see that it makes them both nervous for it to remain sitting there, like an accusation. I feel something in my chest turn mean and hard as a walnut.
I put both dogs in my car. I am being decisive. I am putting my foot down, I think, as I head down the highway. I feel wild, feral with disobedience.
Junie stands with her nose rubbing against the back seat window, panting, with her tail thumping on the seat. She is just excited to be going somewhere. The angst-ridden Agnes lays pressed flat on the floor behind the driver’s seat—trying to get under it. Unlike the lab, she seems to sense that something is amiss.
The SPCA building is surrounded by large oak trees. It looks peaceful enough. No smoke stack chimney with black incinerator smoke snaking into the blue sky. We sit in the car and the engine ticks.
Junie, still excited, licks at the windows as if they’re made of peppermint. Agnes groans, a long, mournful sound full of dread.
The dogs, they’re docile, not biters, possibly even good with children. Someone else may want them. I will have to lie about their ages, especially Junie. She’s eight years old, walks as if are back legs are made of wood, and has lost most of the fur around her nose. She is not attractive. The Corgi may have better luck, except that she’s on the skittish side. When we’re on a walk, she tends to stay close to me, as if she needs the contact of her fur on my ankle every five minutes to make sure I have not fled.
I start to hear another sound, one I cannot place at first. It sounds like wind across the prairie. I shut off the ignition. It’s the sound of dogs in the shelter—it’s muted, but if you stay still and listen, you can hear dozens of dogs howling into the night. All different pitches—high, low, frantic, questioning—they present a chorus of barks and yips and howls.
I look back at Junie, this ancient dog with the bald patch on her snout. She tries very hard to jump into the front seat to get a better look at what’s going on. I nudge her away with my elbow and she licks it.
I start up the car, put it in reverse, and head back into the city of brotherly love.
On what later turned out to be the last visit, we went over the things she would most certainly not miss. The armpit smell of the subway cars in summer. How some Philly summers are so hot, you feel like you’re melting and you can do nothing but lay down panting on the kitchen floor. Shaving your legs. Worrying about crow’s feet. Watching someone throw a crumpled McDonald’s bag out of the car window. “And you know what,” she dropped her voice to a dramatic whisper. “I am so, so, so sick of the homeless.” That got us laughing for a good long while.
“I miss my hair the most,” she said, reaching up, and not quite touching the back of her head. She had baby chick fuzz all over her perfectly-shaped skull. On her, it looked glamorous, like she’d purposefully punked herself out, become a lead singer in an indie band that yells obscenities into a microphone, “Fuck the government!”
We didn’t talk about all of the other things she’d miss. Those were a given.
And when I said goodbye, I did it in the same breezy way as before. I waved and did a little dance. I didn’t touch her arm, or give her a hug. We just didn’t do those things, not in real life. It’s not like I didn’t have things to say. It’s just that the words lodged in my throat.
I can’t sleep. All night long, the marble rolls back and forth, back and forth. I put my head under my pillow. I try to listen to music on my iPod. I count dog breeds, starting with the letter “A.” Afghan, Bichon, Collie, Dachshund.
The marble continues to roll.
I go upstairs and knock on the door. Almost immediately, it’s opened as if the person were waiting for me to arrive. It’s the Russian lady from the dog park by Jodie’s house. Why she goes to the park so far away is another mystery of the city. Perhaps she too has just lost someone.
“Yes?” she says. Her dog pants behind her, trying to push past her knees to greet me.
“I can’t sleep. Please, what is that sound?”
“Oh, sound?” She taps her finger to her lips and stares hard at the ceiling. “His toy. I hear it all day long. I don’t even notice. Sheba! Bring it.” The dog dutifully brings the toy to her. It is a round ladybug encased in a plastic ball. “Okay, you take it, and someday, you bring me back a quiet one.” She pats the dog on the head, he’s leaning against her leg, this giant beast. Somehow, she doesn’t fall over.
Oh, I think, as if just remembering. The dogs. The dogs in the house by themselves every single night.
The thing that will break your heart is that these dogs never get over the loss. I saw a picture in National Geographic magazine of a big-headed Labrador lying on the twin bed where the family’s dead son used to sleep. It might be a stretch, but the family swore he was depressed. The worst thing was that he never quite got over it. You can’t go up to the dog and say, “Listen, he’s not coming back. That boy who you remember, he got blown up in Iraq.”
The other thing about the photo was that the family hadn’t moved on either. The room still had his high school posters of bands he liked and the shelves had his textbooks and a few model airplanes. I imagined that his flannel shirts hung in the closet with his shiny shoes and sneakers lined up underneath in a neat row. How can you expect a dog to get over a death when the people around him haven’t done the same?
I put my clothes on in a rush, as if I’m on my way to stop an execution. I have trouble zipping the coat. I jump in my car and zoom across the city from my apartment to hers. It is nothing—takes ten minutes to drive, thirty minutes to walk if you cut across Fairmount.
When I open the door, the dogs look startled, caught in the act of sleeping. They have not been pacing the night away or howling at the sky, thinking maudlin thoughts, remembering puppyish moments along the Schuylkill running path with Jodie.
Junie shakes herself awake, her collar jangling. Agnes yawns so wide I can see the back of her pink throat. The meanest thing I have done is to leave them alone every night.
I gather their silver dog bowls, their chewed-on leashes, the heavy bag of Purina, as much as I can carry, except for luxurious dog beds, which will have to come later. They can sleep on the floor. Or they can crowd in the bed next to me. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we’re together on our way home.
Aimee LaBrie’s debut story collection, Wonderful Girl (University of North Texas Press, 2007), won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction. Her second story collection, Animal Shelters, is forthcoming from Running Wild Press. Stories from this collection have appeared in Zoetrope, Per Contra, Cleaver Magazine, and Philadelphia Noir. Her short stories have also appeared in Pleiades, Beloit Fiction Journal, Minnesota Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, Permafrost, and other journals. In 2012, she won first place in Zoetrope’s All-Story Fiction contest. Aimee lives in Princeton, NJ.
Cagibi Issue 5