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It was stupid to ask for the dogs. Dee had done it on impulse, when the excitement of getting divorced was starting to wear off. “I want full custody,” she told Carter. “The same as if we had kids.”
“I guess I don’t care,” he said. Carter was cleaning out the front closet and he sat back on his toes. “If you think you can handle it, then you can take them. It’ll just make life easier on me.” The dogs, Ralph and Mickey, lay together in their crate, curled up in an endless circle of fur. Mickey raised his head at the sound of Carter’s voice, then gave a snort and went back to sleep.
“Okay, good,” she said. “I just wanted to get that straight.” It might have been nice if Carter could’ve acted a little more upset, but Dee let it go. She’d been the one to ask for the divorce anyway, bringing it up one night when they’d gone out for Mexican. It was January then and the first snow of the year had fallen over the hills, silencing the town until the warm earth beneath began to melt the ice and cold away. Dee had lived in Arkansas all her life, where everyone stayed inside until the snow was nearly gone.
“What the hell, Dee? Where did this come from?” Carter asked her when she told him she’d already seen an attorney. Dee licked the salt from the rim of her glass, and her face puckered as she told him the truth. “I never wanted to get married in the first place. I was all mixed up even before the wedding.”
“But you cried during our vows.”
“I know, but I was caught up in the moment,” she said, digging a tube of lip balm out of her purse. She loved the margaritas at Jose’s, but the salt made her lips burn. “You know, the dresses and the flowers and that Bible passage they read and all. It was like crying at a movie.”
“The dresses?” he asked, looking at her like she was crazy, but by then the waiter had come back and was standing over them, refilling the salsa bowl. Dee smiled at the waiter. “Brown Eyed Girl” played in the background, a song Dee enjoyed imagining was just for her. When she turned back around, Carter had his face in his hands and she dropped her head down to see if he was crying. He wasn’t, but that was all right. It might’ve been embarrassing to have him cry right there at Jose’s. Instead, Carter sat up and rubbed his nose, then picked up a tortilla chip and put it in his mouth. “What the hell, Dee?” he said again, mumbling as he chewed.
But now Carter was fine with the divorce and had even been cooperative about the division of goods. They’d talked it over and decided the best thing was to pile up all the junk they didn’t want and have a garage sale. They’d split the money and whatever was left. “As long as we’re calling dibs, though, I’d like to have the crystal,” he said. “Oh, and the china. I love that china.” What kind of man wants china? Dee thought, but agreed to let him have it. It was ugly anyway. She’d picked it out herself, thinking it was stylish, but now she knew better. In ten years, no one would want it. It wasn’t the type of china you kept for a lifetime; it wasn’t china you’d pass down to your children.
Not that Dee had wanted to have children with Carter. And maybe this was why, because she knew she’d never want to get pregnant by a man like him, one who valued china or the crystal goblets for which she’d foolishly registered. Dee and her mother had floated around Dillard’s, greedily checking off each item they wanted, chattering at the sales girl who’d been assigned to help them. It became a weekly ritual after that, Dee and her mother roaming the department store, snooping through the gift registry to see what was left to receive.
All this when Dee was still going out with Shelly at night, hanging out at some dark table, drinking and making eye contact with losers. Dee and Shelly had lived together for six years, since they both quit the sorority sophomore year and moved off campus. Dee was dating Aaron then, her boyfriend from high school, whom she had assumed she would marry. Between Aaron and Carter, Dee slept with a lot of men, though she hadn’t intended to do so. She’d intended to remain a virgin until her wedding day, a goal that seemed impractical by the time she started dating Aaron. He’d made it clear she didn’t have many options when it came to sex: she could do it and he’d be quiet, or she could not do it and he’d tell everyone she had. Sex was a funny thing, she learned. There was no going back once you started.
It was easy for Dee to get men to pay attention to her, which was strange, because Shelly was prettier, what with her golden brown hair, her good skin, her blue eyes. In comparison, Dee had the appearance of a woman who was merely trying to look sexy, but it worked. Even the night before her wedding, Dee flirted, successfully, with several men at the bar, later meeting one of them at his apartment when everyone thought she was home getting her rest for the big day. Men never talked to Shelly if Dee was around.
“It’s about the vibe,” Dee told her friend on that final night as a single woman, the bachelorette party having fizzled out early. “You don’t put out the right vibe, the one that says you’re available.”
“But you’re not available, technically,” Shelly whined. “I think it’s all bullshit.”
“Oh, yes, I am available,” Dee said. “Right up until I get that ring on my finger.”
“You have a ring on your finger already.” Shelly pointed to the diamond Carter had given Dee. He’d opted for size over quality, knowing she would prefer something flashy.
“This isn’t the one that counts,” Dee went on, wiggling the fingers of her left hand. “This one’s just a gift.”
Once Carter was done with the closets, the two of them straightened up the garage and set up tables cobbled together out of saw-horses and plywood. The real estate agent had told them to get rid of as much extra furniture and clutter as they could. Most of what they put out for the sale was brand-new, some of it from the wedding two years before and not even taken out of the box. Dee started to price those things a little higher, then thought better of it. The important thing was to make sure it all sold. There was a layer of frost still on the lawn when Carter opened the garage door, a dozen or more shivering bargain-hunters standing in the driveway, waiting. By noon, they’d carried off nearly everything.
Then, no sooner than they put the “For Sale” sign out in the yard, it was all over, except for scrubbing down the house for the new owners and, of course, the sex. Their sex life as a couple had been dead for months, but strangely, agreeing to divorce had invigorated their desire for each other. After they decided to stay in the house together until it sold, Dee and Carter started having sex almost every night, then showering separately and returning to the bed to read or watch tv until they fell asleep. The dogs slept in their crate in the kitchen, though that hadn’t been the plan when they first got them. Dee wanted the dogs to sleep with her and Carter, wanted them to stretch their warm, yellow bodies down along her legs and over her feet, but Ralph and Mickey couldn’t be trusted. The first night she tried it, the dogs stayed at first, snuggling in, but later Dee woke to the sound of something like a giant zipper being pulled and she found the dogs in the living room, tearing up the drapes.
“Why do we do this?” she asked Carter the night before they both moved out. Dee stood at the door of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around her body. She pulled a wide-toothed comb through her wet knot of tangles. She’d over-highlighted her hair and even when she used conditioner, the strands felt like the dense clumps that had to be cut from the dogs’ manes.
“What?” Carter asked, looking up from a magazine.
“I don’t know why we have sex like we do. We don’t even like each other.”
“I still like you,” he said.
“You shouldn’t, though,” she answered. “It’s not normal. And this sex isn’t normal, either.”
Carter put the magazine down and tipped his head back to look at the ceiling, pausing to think. “Maybe it’s sort of like storing up for the winter,” he finally said. “Maybe it’s like we know we probably won’t be getting it much for a while, so we’re just getting what we can now before it’s too late.”
“Like squirrels?” she said.
“Like sex squirrels,” Carter said and laughed.
“Forget I asked,” she said. Dee grabbed a bottle of moisturizer. Her skin was dry too, probably from going to the tanning bed. She rubbed a palmful of lotion over her arm and looked back at Carter, the sheet pulled primly over his body, tucked in close to his sides. Dee’s attorney said the papers would be ready to sign by the end of the month, finalizing the divorce. But it seemed unnecessary, really, the legality of their parting. She’d hardly felt married at all these past two years and, oddly, she’d realized it was the fantasy of being divorced, the dream of leaving that made being with Carter as long as she had even possible. Sometimes she watched Ralph and Mickey with a kind of envy. She and Carter had bought two crates for them, but the dogs refused to be separated. They slept together in a lovers’ embrace, one’s head nestled into the neck of the other, their front legs folded in at their bellies, their back ones intertwined. In all the nights she’d slept with Carter, she’d never once longed for him that way. In fact, when his hand or leg brushed against her, her sleeping body, rather than move closer, instinctively recoiled.
Now here she was, free of Carter and the house and the junk, the cold days of the long spring finally gone, and it was the dogs who were ruining her life. Dee hadn’t bothered to even look for a new place until they had a contract on the house, not realizing how few choices were available. If it weren’t for the dogs, Dee could’ve moved into one of the brand-new apartment buildings in Fayetteville or Springdale, where there were probably loads of other single people living, a place where she could meet somebody and fall in love. Instead, she’d backed herself into a corner with the dogs, making it so that she had to rent a house with a fenced lot. A nicer house would’ve been too expensive. The houses on Garland Avenue were all at least fifty years old and this alone kept the rents low. On either side of the ugly chain-link that encompassed Dee’s backyard, there were college students living in the other run-down houses, and she felt foolish watching them come and go, the lineup of cars in their driveways changing by the hour.
From the looks of the trim work around the doors and the bottoms of the cabinets, Dee knew Ralph and Mickey weren’t the first animals to live in the house, but in practically no time, they’d managed to create damage of their own. The move had upset their routine, throwing them back into their worst habits. Ralph’s stomach was having problems—no telling what he’d eaten—and Dee went outside with him to poke an Imodium down his throat. The whole house was carpeted, so he’d have to stay out until the diarrhea passed. When she came back in, she heard the sound of cracking and found Mickey in the bathroom, tearing a cabinet door off with his teeth.
“Stop that,” she said, pulling Mickey away from the door. He growled at her as she stuck her fingers between his jaws, pulling out a chunk of wood. When the time came to move out, the landlord would nail her for this one. “What the fuck,” she said, tossing the wood chunk in the trash. Next door, a row of cars had collected in front and she could hear the kids screaming at each other, setting up for a party. The dogs’ crate was big and took up too much room in the small house, but since it had turned warm, she kept it in the backyard, which was fine unless it was a party night. On a party night, Ralph would howl until one of the kids came over with a bowl full of beer, straight from the keg. They’d open the door of the crate and Ralph would lap up the beer and fall asleep, then eat a load of grass the next morning and throw up.
Dee sat down on the toilet lid and put her face in her hands. She’d have never gotten the dogs in the first place if Carter hadn’t started in talking about babies. Panicked, she had pulled the idea of a dog right out of the blue. “Let’s go to the pound,” she said. “I’ve always wanted a dog and it would be good practice for parenthood, right?”
“I guess it could be,” Carter said, unconvinced.
They went to PetSmart on adoption day and stood in front of the cages. Carter poked his fingers through the door of one, stroking the nose of a rusty-colored coon hound. “I like this one,” he said, dreamily, though Dee wrinkled up her nose in disapproval. It looked too much like her father’s old hunting dog. When he was angry, her father kicked that dog, one time pummeling it all the way down the front steps of the house, even as it lost control of its bowels.
Then Dee saw Ralph and Mickey, both dogs half-golden retriever, half-unknown, a mystery represented by two giant question marks on their information card. “Prefer to be adopted together,” it said too, and Dee liked this, the idea that they belonged to each other. The dogs stood in front of her, frantically pushing their black noses through the wire, whimpering as they danced back and forth. Their owner had given them up when he moved, claiming they were wonderful dogs, but he would be living in an apartment and it wouldn’t be fair to make them live that way, without a yard to enjoy.
“I think he was getting a divorce and just didn’t want to tell us,” the adoption woman whispered as she took Dee and Carter’s application. “We get that a lot, people breaking up and giving their animals away.” What Dee and Carter discovered when they got home was that the dogs had behavioral issues. Always together, they yowled into the night and had accidents on the floor, even when Dee and Carter took them out for walks three or four times a day. The dogs chewed through anything—a corner of linoleum popped up from the floor, the doors of the closet, the leg of the coffee table. They were sick nearly all the time. Mickey had once vomited for two days straight until whatever made him ill exhausted itself and the dog lay thin and dehy-drated in the living room, his feet tucked under the couch.
It wasn’t just avoiding the subject of a baby, though, that caused Dee to want the dogs. She was bored too. Bored with Carter and the house and her job, and it didn’t matter what she bought or how many different ways she rearranged the furniture or what she did with her hair, she couldn’t stop being bored. Sometimes in the evening, she’d walk through the house, making a circle, looking for something more to do, stopping in the hall or the kitchen to rest her hands on her hips and think. She’d find herself filled with an energy that was completely unfamiliar to her, a sense that she could take off down the street and run for miles, though she never did. Instead, she’d sit on the couch, curling her cold feet up underneath her and staring at the wall.
Then she’d gotten fired. She’d worked for five years as the assistant to the public communications officer for the local school district. Dee really did do her work, but there were times when she didn’t feel like typing and filing and filling in the deadlines on the giant calendar that hung on the wall. She called her mother or friends who worked at other dull jobs and talked while she rubbed layers of petroleum jelly on her hands. She hadn’t thought it mattered as long as the work eventually got done. But it did matter. Dee didn’t think you could even be let go from a state job, but she walked back to her office and cleared out her desk, too shocked to protest. Carter wasn’t as sympathetic as she thought he would be. “You shouldn’t have been messing around like that, Dee,” he said. “But we can live off my income for a while. Take a little while and you’ll find something else.”
Weeks went by and Dee found that she enjoyed the freedom of unemployment. The dogs loved having her home, satisfied to sleep on the couch together as Dee watched General Hospital or Montel in the afternoons. They didn’t have to stay in their crate, since Dee was there to let them out into the backyard, where sometimes she sat on a green resin lawn chair, warm under an afghan, watching the dogs sniff and dig and lie out in the late fall sun, a shower of brown leaves swirling over them.
“You know, maybe you shouldn’t even go back to work,” Carter said to her one night. “Maybe this is fate’s way of saying we should go ahead and have a baby. You could be pregnant by New Year’s.”
“I guess that’s an idea,” she said. Carter hadn’t mentioned babies since they got the dogs and, somehow, she’d forgotten that Ralph and Mickey were only substitutes for what he really wanted. She reached her hand to her throat and felt the throb of blood pushing through her veins, a fever rising in her skin. Her stomach tensed as Ralph came up to her and dug his nose into the crotch of her jeans.
The next morning, she bought a newspaper and spread it out on the kitchen table. She circled the ad for the insurance office and then took her resume there, handing it to the man who introduced himself as Gary. Fifteen minutes later, she was hired. She knew Carter was disappointed that she’d found a job. He spent the evening slouched into the cushions of the couch, yawning and biting his thumbnail. The house felt too small and she went into the backyard with the dogs. Normally, she hated the cold, but it felt good that night, the wind burning on her cheeks, rushing up the back of her neck. The dogs were too tired to play and they walked in slow circles, taking turns licking at each other’s face, then nudging their cool noses into the palm of Dee’s hand. Finally, she brought them inside and put them in their crate in the kitchen.
“Did you just come in?” Carter asked, watching as she peeled off her jacket.
“God, Carter, I’ve been out in the yard for an hour.”
“I was about to lock up,” he said, stretching. “I didn’t realize you were gone.” Dee looked at Carter. They’d met through friends, not at a bar, and Shelly had been envious, since meeting a man through friends would surely bode well for a relationship. Things had fallen together this way and Dee had followed along and, yet, she hadn’t, and she felt a darkening in her chest, a longing and a regret that could have been for Carter but wasn’t. It would be weeks before she told him she was ending the marriage, that half the paperwork was already done. But it was on this night, the December wind whispering outside, the dogs asleep in their crate, she felt she had been released from Carter, as if she had both broken free and given in at the same time. The impulse to run left her then, knowing as she did that all that was left was opening the door and walking away.
Dee slumped in her office chair, rubbing her fingers into the corners of her eyes. It hadn’t been a restful night. Ralph’s diarrhea had cleared up with the Imodium, but both he and Mickey stayed up into the early hours trading soulful howls with the partygoers next door. When she left the house that morning, the dogs were dead asleep and didn’t even notice when she opened the crate door and refilled their food and water.
Dee took a sip of her Diet Coke and flipped on her computer. Her job consisted mostly of typing up proof-of-insurance cards and taking payments at In-Sure U. It was high-risk auto insurance. “They’re paying out the nose for this coverage,” Gary explained when he hired her. “They’ve all been dumped by State Farm and American Family, so now they’re down to us.” Gary wasn’t the boss, though. Layton was the boss, a man Gary’s age who almost never came out of the back room. It was only the three of them in the office—Layton to do the books, Dee to answer the phones and process the paperwork, and Gary to do whatever it was he did. Work was better when Gary was around. Without Carter, Dee’s life had grown quieter than she expected, but Gary broke up the silence, making jokes about people who walked by the office front, on their way to the martial arts studio next door. The two of them spent the afternoons listening to shouts and grunts and barefooted smacks against vinyl, Gary doing mock karate chops in the air. On days he was gone, Dee was so lonesome and bored, she was tempted to put her head down and sleep.
Gary plopped himself down on the edge of her desk, snapping his fingers in front of her face. She liked having Gary so close to her, close enough she could smell him. He was handsome in his own way, his pale brown hair shaggy around his ears, the stubble on his jaw coming in red. He must have had horrible acne when he was young by the looks of the scars that rimmed his face, but they’d faded enough that now they gave him a certain masculine character Dee liked. Gary didn’t wear a T-shirt under his polo and she could see the outline of his torso. He was thinner than Carter. Thin like a runner, Dee thought. She could get used to a runner. He looked at her and waved a finger at her hair. “You use a lot of hairspray, don’t you?”
“I don’t think so.” Dee reached up to her hair. She sneered at Gary and turned around to her computer, angry he’d messed up her sexy thoughts about him. It seemed that Carter had been right about the gloomy future of singlehood, and sexy thoughts were all she had.
“I’m not saying it’s bad,” he laughed. “I’m just saying it looks kind of crunchy, you know. It’s a little unnatural.”
“I don’t give a shit about what’s natural,” she said. Shelly criticized her hair too, saying the cut wasn’t very professional, but what was? Dee liked to pull the shorter layers up on top of her head and knot them off with a rubber band, making a fountain of hair. It seemed to lift up her face, slimming it and making her eyes look wider, more exotic.
Dee shooed Gary off her desk, then she pulled up her e-mail. She wasn’t wasting time talking on the phone anymore during office hours. Now that Dee didn’t have Carter’s income to fall back on, she didn’t feel she could take as many risks on the job. It was less conspicuous to e-mail through the day, though she noticed it took up just as much time as talking on the phone and she was having to stay a little later at the office to get through her filing. It was only Dee and Layton then. Sometimes a man would come in, asking to see Layton and looking nervously past Dee. She didn’t like to knock on his door herself, so she’d send the man on back, where he’d announce himself in a whisper and slip inside. Gary had told Dee not to bother Layton if she could keep from it, to always step lightly. “He’s got a lot going on,” he said. “Don’t want him biting your head off.”
But Dee figured out this was also the time when Layton sat in his office and smoked pot. Sometimes Dee heard other voices and the sound of car doors opening and closing in the back alley. Throughout the day, she was certain she could smell marijuana, the sweet, burnt scent lingering in the carpeting or a whiff of it caught, still, on a piece of paper that Layton had signed. At night, she swore she’d brought it home with her, pulling her shirt off and holding it close to her nose, inhaling as deep as she could. It seemed strange, someone being so careless, and it worried her a little. Still, it wasn’t like he was asking Dee to run deliveries, driving vacuum-sealed bags of drugs over into Oklahoma or down to Little Rock. But maybe that was what Gary did? That would explain the days in a row he was gone, times when he said he was out investigating claims.
“He’s not checking out claims,” Shelly said. Dee had wanted to ask Gary to go to lunch with her, but after he started in on her hair, she decided to ask Shelly instead. “They don’t even do it like that anymore, send out adjusters for cars.”
“And how would you know so much?”
“I just had that wreck last year,” Shelly answered, picking at her salad. “I’ve totaled two cars in five years and I’ve never met an adjuster yet.”
“Well, people make claims; I see the receipts. It’s just a small business, so maybe Gary and Layton believe in good customer service, doing things the old way,” Dee said.
“And maybe you’re just blind because Gary’s hot. I think it’s throwing off your instincts.” Shelly looked at her friend and smiled. Dee looked back, then down at her hands. She’d gotten rid of Carter’s diamond after the divorce, trading it in for a thick, silver band set with an aquamarine, her birthstone. Dee remembered the first day she took off her wedding rings, how light her hand felt, the way it nearly floated, weightless. It was like the old trick she did as a girl, standing in a doorway, pushing her arms against the frame as hard as she could, then stepping away and watching as they lifted up, up, out of her control. Dee squinted her eyes at Shelly and reached over to pick a tomato off her plate. “Whatever,” she said. “I don’t think I even have instincts.”
Ralph and Mickey needed exercise—that was the problem. Dee and Carter had owned two tvs, and Dee took one of them when she moved to the house on Garland, setting it up on a dresser in her bedroom. It was a pleasure to crawl into bed and flip through the channels with no one to stop her. She’d always passed by the pbs station before, but a program on dogs caught her attention. It was part of a fundraising marathon; Dee hated it when they asked for money, but she loved the special. On one episode, the host explained that dogs were like children, prone to cause trouble if they couldn’t release their extra energy. It wouldn’t hurt for Dee to get more exercise, either. For the first time in her life, the backs of her thighs were beginning to ripple with cellulite.
Dee bought stronger leashes and two choke collars. She imagined herself walking down the street, Ralph and Mickey clipping along beside her, happy at last, no longer stupidly cocking their heads to the side when she gave a command. You are the alpha dog, the leader of the pack, the man on the PBS special had said. You must demonstrate a calm, assertive nature. Ralph and Mickey nipped at her when she put the chokes over their noses and ears, then they tried to jerk away from her as she snapped on their leashes.
“Now,” she said, standing tall and straight the way the dog trainer had said to do. “Let’s go for a walk.” Ralph and Mickey looked confused as she pulled them out the door and they pushed their bodies closer together, sinking their weight into their legs. They refused to walk, so Dee stepped out in front of them, yanking at the chokes. Then, without any real direction from Dee, they seemed to understand. They walked past the first three houses, the dogs trotting at an ideal pace. Dee nodded confidently at a jogger across the street, then she saw a group of young men gathered in front of the house at the end of the block. One of them looked back at her and, motioning to his friends, pointed toward her with his beer can. Dee smiled at the men, pleased that she’d won control of the dogs, shocked though she was at how easy it had come. It’s all about the vibe, she whispered, lifting her chin a little higher.
Dee saw it first, a chipmunk standing at the base of the maple in the next yard. Ralph and Mickey loved chipmunks and she’d seen them jointly go on the attack for one in the backyard, running so hard in pursuit, they hit the fence, knocking themselves dizzy. The dog trainer had not said anything about chipmunks. Maybe he didn’t mention it because it shouldn’t matter. Once control was asserted by the master, did the dog surrender his own desires? Maybe there was no such thing as only partial submission. The dogs slowed and sniffed the air. Dee began to pray a silent prayer in her head: Oh, Heavenly Father, please don’t let these stupid dogs see that goddamn chipmunk. Please, don’t let it move.
The chipmunk moved. It made a break for the bushes beside the house, a black and brown zip across the yard. Ralph and Mickey stood still, each raising one paw, their bodies posed in a pointer’s stance. Then they leaped, together, into the grass, yanking Dee along with them. “Stop,” she said. “Hold!” The rough braid of the leashes burned down over her wrists and hands. She ran along with the dogs, trying to make the sound in her throat that the man on the pbs special made, the screeching, throaty grunt that was supposed to get their attention, but Ralph and Mickey weren’t listening. They lunged forward in one last attempt to break away, the two of them using all their strength, and Dee fell down, still holding the leashes as the dogs dragged her. At last, she let go, the leashes slapping like whips behind the dogs as they ran. The chipmunk was gone and, without Dee holding them back, the dogs redirected themselves, now gleefully aware of their freedom and forgetting the hunt entirely. Traffic was heavy on Garland and, as she lay in the grass and dirt, Dee hoped the dogs might get hit. She ran her tongue over her teeth, tasted the salt of her own blood. The dogs turned the corner at North Street (amazingly, they stayed on the sidewalk), and she did not call after them.
Dee limped back to the house. Maybe the dogs would get picked up by someone, then dumped at a shelter or out in a farmer’s field. Dee had certainly considered doing this with them herself, but she didn’t have the nerve. The dogs’ collars with their tags lay on the kitchen table; she’d taken them off before she’d slipped on the chokes. No one could trace the dogs back to her and she was relieved, though she wished she could get her money back for the choke collars. She’d bought the best she could find, nearly fifteen dollars apiece. Thirty dollars was a lot of money for something that ran away.
When she awoke the next morning, she started for the back door, to let the dogs in, and remembered they were gone. She smiled and turned, heading for the refrigerator to get a Diet Coke. The cold can numbed the palms of her hands, soothing them, and she sighed as she sipped her drink. She went back to her bed and turned on the television. She stretched out and closed her eyes, but she heard something. It was a whining sound, punctuated by scratching and popping thumps against the siding. She got up and looked through the shades of the window. They were back, Ralph and Mickey, digging together at the base of the fence, clods of dirt flying all around them. Dee leaned her back against the wall, sliding down to the floor in despair. She felt as close to crying as she had in years.
“You’re looking good this morning,” Gary teased her at the office. Dee’s elbows and hands had gotten scraped in the fall, but so had her nose, and she looked as if she had food on it, like she’d been eating chocolate pudding with just her face. Attempting to cover it with makeup and powder had only made the scabs more apparent.
“I’m getting rid of my fucking dogs,” she said, sitting down at her desk. Typing would be awful. The muscles of her hands ached from holding the leashes so tight.
“You never said you had dogs,” Gary said. “You don’t seem like a dog person.”
“I’m not,” Dee said. She could swear she smelled dog shit and she pulled her shoes off to check them. They were clean, but she couldn’t escape the smell. “That’s why they’re going.”
“Well, don’t take them to a shelter,” he said. “That’s a death sentence for an animal.”
“Listen, I need to get to work,” Dee said, cutting her eyes at Gary. “So unless you want the dogs, don’t bother me. I’ve done all I can do.”
Dee ate lunch at her desk and flipped through the Yellow Pages, making a list of shelters. There was only one inside the Fayetteville city limits; another out near Elkins. She considered Gary’s words, how he’d said to let him know before she got rid of the dogs. He’d been away much of the morning and Dee, lonely for his company, decided to forgive him for making her feel guilty about Ralph and Mickey. She was finishing the last bite of her sandwich when she heard the door in back open and close. “I’m back now,” he said, settling himself at his desk and pulling out his cell phone. “I don’t guess anyone’s been in, have they? A guy?”
“No, not today,” she said. “I need to talk to you.”
“About what?” he asked, not looking up from his phone. “Just a second.”
Gary pressed a finger to his brow, then closed the phone and put it in his pocket. He let out a deep breath and pulled a chair from across the room and sat down beside Dee. “What is it?”
“I’ve got to do something about my dogs,” she said. “It’s just not working out.” Not only were the dogs driving her crazy, she explained, keeping her in a run-down house she hated, they were getting expensive too. How come she hadn’t noticed how much dog food cost before? And giving them back to Carter was out of the question. His apartment didn’t allow pets of any sort.
“You said to talk to you before I took them to a shelter,” she added. “So, I am.”
“Well,” Gary said. He pushed his hair back and stretched his legs out in front of him. “I’ve got a lot of animals already, but maybe I could take them until we find another place.”
He looked at her and clapped his hands. “Let’s do this. I’ll come get you Saturday evening and drive you out to my place, in Gravette. We’ll take the dogs with us, see if it works.”
Dee wasn’t sure what to wear on Saturday night, so she put on her black leggings and silver-satin tunic. For going out, she always wore a little more makeup, lining her eyes with a thick, black eye pencil, which she felt made her look like Cleopatra. Shelly told her the way she did her makeup was out of style. Natural was the fashion now, but she’d tried and it didn’t look right. What was the point, anyway, of wearing makeup so it looked like you weren’t wearing makeup? At night when she washed her face, she often thought she was nearly unrecognizable without the powder, the mascara, the lip gloss. She could almost pass as another person.
Gary got to her house early and backed his truck into the drive. He’d spread straw out on the bed and was busy arranging blankets on top of that when she walked out to tell him she was ready. “I was thinking they might do a little better if they were comfortable,” he said. “Maybe they’ll just go to sleep.”
“I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble, but thanks,” she said. Gary looked at her for a moment as he straightened the blankets, his eyes drifting down her body and then back up. “Get the dogs and we’ll go,” he said.
The dogs weren’t used to going anywhere and Gary had to lift them into the back of the truck, their bodies gone stiff in his arms. Usually they barked at a stranger, but they only whimpered at Gary, raising their noses to lick his face. Dee pulled herself into the cab of the truck. A shotgun ran the length of the rack behind her head and she held her body so that she wouldn’t be close to it.
“It’s not loaded,” Gary said. “It’s safe.”
“I think it might be safer to not have it at all, but that’s just me,” she said. Dee pushed herself closer to the door. If it opened, she’d go flying, skidding across the highway into a ditch. Maybe she should’ve sat in the middle, but she wasn’t even sure this was a date. She let go of the door handle and tried to relax her hands in her lap.
Gravette was up close to the Missouri border and it took longer to get there than Dee thought it would. She looked back at the dogs, who had settled down and lay huddled together in the corner of the truck bed. Once they were in Gravette, Gary weaved off the main highway, heading deep into the countryside, where the narrow road was shadowed over by the branches of trees, their leaves newly full and dark green.
Gary’s house was a small split-level with gray rock along the foundation and cedar siding, so that the structure nearly blended into the yard, though he didn’t have a real yard. In fact, Dee couldn’t tell where the yard started and the woods around it began, the trees a thick jungle blocking out the sunlight and darkening the ground. A light wind hushed through the trees and the air was cool. To the side of the house, there was a clothesline on which two pairs of jeans hung by their waists.
“This is it,” Gary said, reaching across Dee’s lap to open the door, his arm brushing over her breast. “Hop on out and we’ll get those dogs situated.”
Dee dropped her feet to the gravel and stood by the truck as Gary put down the tailgate. Ralph and Mickey stretched their backs and then stood, blinking and panting at Gary. He made a kissing sound and waved his arm, inviting them to jump out. Ralph was always the braver of the two dogs, and he wobbled at the edge of the gate before leaping down. Mickey followed. The two of them sniffed the air.
“They’ll be fine,” Gary said. “I wasn’t really wanting dogs, but I probably need them. They can help guard the place.”
“What needs guarding?” Dee said, though he did not seem to hear her.
Gary slipped his hand into hers and led her to the house. He rubbed his thumb on her ring. “This is nice,” he said.
“It’s my birthstone,” she answered, enjoying the touch of his fingers. How many months had it been since her last night with Carter? Only three, but it felt longer than that. It had been longer, still, since they’d kissed, their final weeks of intimacy performed without it. Kissing, they’d found, was hardly a necessity. Gary let go of Dee’s hand and unlocked the door.
“I’ve got my birds in the back, if you want to see them,” he offered. “I’ve got two parrots and a cockatiel I got from a bird rescue.”
“Birds sort of give me the creeps,” she said and stepped inside the doorway. Gary’s house was plain with a few odd pieces of furniture: a couch and two chairs, a television with a wide, flat screen. She went over by the window to an aquarium, though it didn’t have water or fish, but a lizard. Another equally large aquarium stood beside it, twin snakes coiling over and through the pieces of wood and rocks it held.
“Just don’t tap the glass, if you don’t mind,” Gary said, moving past her toward the kitchen. “It riles up the snakes. You want something to drink?”
“Whatever you’ve got,” she said, though now the temptation to tap the glass was killing her. She’d not even have thought of it if he hadn’t warned her. She bent down to get a better look at the snakes. Then Dee stepped back and felt something at her leg. Gary had come back in the room, setting two bottles of beer on the table beside the couch.
“Oh, and don’t be scared of Bobbie,” he said. Dee looked down and saw the animal, a bobcat standing as high as her knees. “She’s tame,” Gary said. “I wouldn’t let her be out if I thought she’d hurt you.”
“Shit,” Dee said, unable to make herself move. The cat looked at her and pulled its face into a grimace, its wide, pink tongue visible between its teeth. It moved closer and its whiskers brushed her leg. Dee wanted to push it away, to give it a good kick in the ribs, but she couldn’t. Not with Gary watching her. Besides, a bobcat probably wouldn’t be like a dog, who would go whimpering off into the corner, terrified to ever cross you again. A bobcat would come after you, sink a nice sharp set of fangs into your leg.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to be keeping wild animals in your house like this,” she managed to say.
“Bobbie’s not wild. She uses a litter box.”
“That’s what makes her tame?”
“Sure,” he said, offering his hand to the cat. It licked his fingers. “Anyway, danger’s a relative thing. You’ve been living with the descendants of wolves. How many times have you heard of a dog flipping out and biting a kid’s face off or mauling somebody to death?” Gary pointed out the window at the dogs. “I saw the teeth on those things,” he said, looking at Dee’s neck. “One good snap there on the jugular, and that’s all it would take.”
Dee looked at Gary, then back at the bobcat, unsure of what to do.
“I scare the shit out of you, don’t I?” Gary asked.
“No,” she said. Gary put his hand on her hip. “Well, maybe,” she answered. “Are you a drug dealer? Are you selling drugs at the office?”
“We sell insurance at the office,” he said.
“But that’s not all you do,” Dee said. “My friend Shelly says you guys have something illegal going on. She worked at a restaurant once and there was all sorts of shit going on in the back room.”
“Listen to me,” Gary said, his hand gliding up to the base of her ribs. “Me and Layton have the insurance business and a thing or two on the side. It works out as long as Layton keeps it together, but sometimes he gets his own ideas. He’s been doing that, trying to bring in somebody who doesn’t understand.” Gary put two fingers under her chin. “Layton fucks up, but I don’t. That’s why I’m there. I’m in control. Does that make sense?” He lifted her hair and sent his tongue up her neck to her ear, around to her face.
“No,” she said, but it didn’t matter. The bobcat flopped down on the floor beside them. Dee pulled her head to the side, away from Gary, but he caught her mouth with his thumb and pulled it back to him. “Stop that,” he said and kissed her.
In the night, she was certain she heard the dogs. She opened her eyes and lay still, listening. There was nothing. The moon’s light slipped in through the blinds, cutting the blackness of the room with a pale ray. A body lay beside her, long and warm, and she reached over, expecting to feel Gary there. Instead, she felt fur and a belly moving up and down. “Ralph? Mickey?” she said, but the dogs were closed up with the birds on the screened-in back porch. Besides, this body she touched was too slick, too lean to be Ralph or Mickey, and she pulled her hand away. Then she saw the eyes, two silver crescents in the dark. The bobcat looked over its shoulder at Dee and yawned, its own arms stretched out over Gary, its paws flexing. It lifted its nose in the air, a grimace again sliding over its face, then it relaxed its head on the mattress. Its bobbed tail beat against her leg.
Stretched out to its full length, the cat was bigger there in bed. Dee wondered what it would do if she got up, if she put her clothes on and left, though she knew she wouldn’t do that. Where could she go? She was somewhere she’d never been before, miles, probably, from the nearest highway, deep in the Arkansas woods. She hadn’t even paid enough attention on the drive to memorize the turns of the road, the landmarks. Gary slept on the other side of the cat, one bare leg up over the top of the covers, his left arm tucked behind his head like a cradle. Dee hesitated, then reached her hand back out and rested it on the cat’s side. It made a sound that came from its chest, neither a purr nor a growl, but the echo of it vibrating across its ribs. The cat thumped its tail against her one last time before settling back into sleep. Dee was tired too, and she sank into the pillow, her whole body giving in to the quiet, and closed her eyes. She smoothed her hand along the side of the cat’s chest where she could feel the throb of its animal pulse, the race of its heart faster and more familiar than she expected, something closer to her own.
About the Author
Angela Mitchell is an MFA student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. An eighth-generation native of southern Missouri, she now lives in St. Louis with her husband and sons. This is her first published story.