by Christi Nogle
On a Friday morning in August, Talia Simpson hops down the porch steps of her big cream-colored house. Her cream-colored dog quickly passes her, straining on his leash. He pees on the fence for a long time, and then they are off on a power walk. On Talia, the speed registers in a jelly swish of hips and a slowly unraveling reddish ponytail. The dog, a big puppy really, keeps to a quick up-and-down trot. It is already warm at not quite 8 a.m. and could break 110 today. The neighborhood looks reconciled to it. There isn’t anyone out or anything frail left out in the sun. Cars go by with their windows up as though the heat of noon could get at them already. Talia is feeling excellent, as always, and yes, feeling a little contemptuous of all these air conditioned commuters.
The puppy stops. Talia is so cut off her rhythm that she nearly stumbles, but then she turns to coo at the puppy and gently pull him forward. He’s stopped right at the spot where someone’s pressed their handprints and written a name in the sidewalk. That’s strange, she thinks, and as she stops to read the name, the puppy takes the chance to jerk back sharply, right out of his collar.
Talia doesn’t waste a minute to call but tries to catch at him. Her arm flashes out only to grasp a handful of tail hairs, and then he’s running. She can be fast, too, and she’s nearly caught up to him again when he tucks his butt in for extra power and zooms off in the direction of Main. Talia steps into the street and waves to stop a car.
I’m driving to my job at the alternative school with a low buzzing ache in my head and little hope for the day. The radio guys puke out, “Looks like it might break 110 today. If that isn’t hot enough for you I don’t know what is.” I laugh for a minute before I realize it isn’t funny. I guess it’s nice to hear voices.
It’s been a hard week. I was hot last weekend, so inspired, and then I’ve been racing through the story every night after summer-school classes so that I could mail it on time this morning. I examined the manila envelopes three times before slipping them into the mail box. Postage, addresses, return addresses– that’s me, Roger Jacobs at 823 Jacobson Street, though of course the byline is something more suitable for the erotic horror genre–and finally let them fall through the slot. Unless I’m mistaken, the story inside is going to finally get me published.
There’s a price. Coffee and nothing to eat will make my breath stink like death by mid-morning. Funny, I always thought of bad breath as bologna sandwich breath or too much garlic, but those are perfumes compared to the cat piss reek of bitter coffee and whatever else is twisting in my stomach. I write, “Take better care of self” on the notepad in the driver seat.
I feel like drug addicts say they felt before the end, like I can just keep it together for one more day, something will open up for me.
As I’m slowing for the light, a middle-aged lady steps right out in front of the car, yelling but giving an apologetic, no-big-deal gesture.
I have to roll down the window to hear her: “You’ve got to help me out for a minute, kay? Let me in.” A hooker, I think for a second, though I can’t pin that feeling to anything about her clothing or all that scrubbed-looking flesh.
“Hold on,” I say. “I’m right in the street.”
“Or can you just turn around and go get him? He’ll jump right in the car, any car. Okay? Just open your door when you see him.” She’s waving an empty pink collar. She still has the leash end wrapped tightly around her other hand.
I nod and start rolling up the window. I even think about doing it. I check my mirrors to see if it would be alright to turn around. All is clear, but I head forward in the direction of school as I might have guessed I would. Can’t be late, those kids are trouble enough already.
I wake each summer morning surprised to be back in the pink bedroom. It’s my first long visit since I left for college two years ago, and that’s what I chant to myself making up: just a visit, just a long visit, nothing to worry about. Each morning after the chant, I have coffee and write in my journal until my sisters wake and I have to give myself over to watching them.
On Friday morning, I’m still in bed when Mom comes back from her walk. My room is just off the kitchen, so I hear her putting on coffee, making a phone call. I wish I’d shut my door. I want coffee, but I also want to stay in bed so she can’t have the chance to give more chores, but I also want the coffee.
I hear her sobbing and check the clock: almost nine. She isn’t going in to work.
“What’s wrong,” I ask from the doorway.
“The puppy,” she says. “Don’t wake the girls.”
“Where’s the puppy?” I ask, but her face is grave. I see the smears on her shirt. “Is he hurt? Is he dead?”
“I don’t know. Is he?”
“Will you check for me, Janey, please?”
So I have to walk out to the shed where she’s laid him. I watch the skinned dent in his chest for a long time before I’m sure that the movement beneath is real and not a function of my own eyes throbbing. There are other abrasions on his side. A piece of white bone or cartilage juts from his hip, under the only spot that’s really gruesome and wet with blood. It’s strange to see that coat ripped open so soon; he was just-grown. Poor puppy. His name was Dave but no one ever called him that.
It’s a strange morning. I listen to Mom’s story and help her clean it up so it’s ready for Claire and Lynna.
When the puppy checks in dead, I take a picture of him and call Mom. We pack his wounds with paper towels and wrap him in a white sheet. We wash his face, wake the girls, retell for them their story: God thought he was such a nice puppy, He wanted him to live in heaven. They stare sideways at each other while we try to convince them of this. We pick flowers. They insist on packing his mouth with flowers. Hole digging, funeral. We have to carry the old dog, Toby, out on his dog bed like it’s a stretcher because he’s not good today either. Lynna keeps telling Claire that we’re going to bury her next until she’s wailing and Mom takes them into the house to watch videos.
I clean up and put in a little time on the computer, and since Mom’s home I have no more duties, except for one last errand. I know who killed our puppy, or good as killed him, and I want to let him know that what he did is not okay.
After my stop at the alternative school, I keep walking. I’m thinking only of the sweat and the heat, how they strengthen me. It isn’t until I catch the drivers of the cars doing double takes that I remember that I am a skinny, tan woman out walking the streets in a tank top and boxers. I must look like fun. But Talia Simpson’s daughter or not, there’s nothing sexy about me. They can tell, men can, when they get close enough. I’ve never known if it’s a smell, or a lack of smell, or a certain way of smiling. There must be something to explain the way Mom draws men and the way that I do not.
I’m almost to the park when a car slows to a crawl beside me. He has a mullet so long that he’s sitting on it. He leans over the passenger seat to ask me questions, first soft ones and then, as I don’t answer, harsher ones. Finally he speeds away.
I know I’ve been staying home so much to avoid questions like these. I don’t like to think of them here among familiar houses. I’m passing by the house of an old boyfriend right now and think of the way he would ask me to sit on his lap and I’d do it holding all the weight on my legs. He was cute as a television boyfriend, and sweet, but I just couldn’t.
When I walk into the park, all I think of are the family picnics Mom held with men called Larry or Teddy or Dave. In the shade at the corner of the park, there’s a kid about twelve years old in a lawn chair with a cardboard box of free puppies beside him. I look inside and see they’re very young.
“Don’t you think it’s too hot out here?” I say.
“Mom said I can’t come home until they’re gone,” he says, “and I’m keeping them cool.” He picks up a spray bottle and mists them so they’re damp when I pick one up. The yellow hairs stick to my hands with what feels like grease.
“They can’t sweat, you know,” the kid says.
The puppy I hold is a little limp but fat enough, probably healthy. “Cute,” I say.
“Not as cute as you,” he says and looks straight at me before he starts to be embarrassed and grins down at the ground.
“Not half as cute as you,” I say, and it’s right. He’s dark-skinned and has a pretty face, soft eyes. Without thinking, I lean in and give him a kiss on the corner of his mouth and then turn away before he’s opened his eyes.
I smile to myself imagining him blissed-out for the rest of the day, but when I get a few paces away he starts yelling that I better come back and take a puppy. He’s threatening me, calling out familiar names. When I get out of his sight, though it’s painful in the heat, I turn and run towards home.
The day was a horror. Air conditioning whittled off twenty degrees in the modular unit, but it didn’t keep us from sweating. The students reeked. I imagined all their vile little criminal thoughts had come to the surface to choke the air.
I’m free now, though. I walk out into oven air and sunlight powerful enough to destroy me. I see papers tucked under my windshield and move faster, expecting something nice— valuable coupons, maybe a carnival come to town — but the sheets are home-printed photos on thin cheap paper. The first one shows a yellow dog lying in a messy shed. It’s cut up, pretty clearly dead. The second picture must be the funeral. There’s a black cocker spaniel in attendance looking ready for the grave itself, a little kid in a black tank top with back turned to the camera and another little kid sitting beside the turned ground with tears coming down her cheeks in sheets. Her face looks like it could turn inside out.
When I get home I go down to the basement to write, but I can’t do it. I stopped in the middle of a line, the exciting central image of the new piece. I read what I have written:
She licks around the belly, up the side, over the shoulder, down the arm. Her tongue feels cool like the back of a spoon. She finally reaches the fingers, rubs her face on them like a cat would do. She nibbles on them, and then a taste is not enough. She takes two fingers into her mouth. She keeps her own finger in the lover’s navel; it’s enough to pin the body to the floor. She bites down into bone. It would not seem that a person could bite through bone so lovingly but she does. She begins to. And that is when her face begins to change. There are shadows moving over it, shadows from nothing in the room. The shadows begin to have reference points on the face. The face itself is shifting, and
I had imagined my face on a book jacket. I had imagined how they would say I have an intense gaze. Now all I see is the crying baby in the photograph and I hate myself more bitterly than I ever have before. One would think this self-hatred would channel into the work, but it does not. There is no translation for it. I put my clothes back on and head out for walk.
. . . . . . . The complete story is available in the Askance collection “Saltwater And Other Stories“.
Christi Nogle’s short stories have appeared in publications such as Dappled Things, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Flame Tree Publishing’s American Gothic anthology. Christi teaches college composition and lives in Boise, Idaho with her partner Jim and their dogs and cats.
Flippin’ The Bird photo credit – Igor Miske via Unsplash
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