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“Is he sick?”
“The secret is Benadryl. Quiets them down. People want to give you more when you’ve got two dogs depending on you.”
“You do that?” Shelby is distressed by this news. She has realized the kid thinks she’s homeless too. Maybe it’s her wardrobe, the holes in her boots, the old sweatshirt. “What are their real names?” she asks. When he doesn’t answer, she presses on. “Seriously.”
The kid glares at her. “I already told you!”
Shelby has broken her own rule. She never speaks to people she knows, let alone strangers. It’s time for her to get back to work, yet she feels she won’t make it through the day. She gets out what’s left of the joint she began that morning. She takes a few hits before passing it to the homeless guy. He smokes greedily, and although he doesn’t say thank you, he does give her a piece of advice. “You can rent them, you know. Twenty bucks for four hours. It’s a good deal.” Shelby looks at him blankly, not understanding his meaning, so he adds, “The dogs.”
“Rent them from you?”
“Are you nuts? If they were my dogs wouldn’t I know their names?”
The animals are so filthy Shelby wonders if she might get fleas merely by being in the same vicinity. The sleeping one is a Lhasa apso–like thing, and the other is a French bulldog. It has a furrowed expression, as if it was considering something of major importance that is far beyond human scope. They both make Shelby feel itchy.
“Maybe some other time,” she tells the kid.
She returns to the pet store to stack twenty-pound bags of cat food. She’s amazed anyone in New York City needs that much cat food. How many cats can fit into one apartment? Seven? Eight? Twenty? When she leaves work at the end of the day, the rain is over and the sidewalk is steaming. She spies the dogs and the platform cart, but as she crosses the park and gets closer, she notices the person they’re with is different. Now it’s an older man with long braids. He has a sign—Money for Dog Food—and a basket filled with dollar bills.
The heat gets worse. That night Shelby and Ben wrap themselves in wet sheets and sit on the fire escape. Neither wants dinner.
“We’re in togas,” Ben says cheerfully. “Amor in aeternum.”
He’s been studying Latin, which he says is important for anyone working in pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately Shelby has glanced through his textbook and therefore knows he’s talking about love. More and more he thinks she’s someone she’s not. They have tangerines and water instead of dinner. It’s too hot for food. The street looks beautiful when the neon lights of the bar across the street are switched on, as if blue bath oil has been poured over everything. Colors drip over the black street. Shelby is grateful for every horn that honks; the noise takes up space in her head. Emptiness is dangerous. When it’s quiet she starts to hear Helene’s voice. She used to just catch a glimpse of her in the basement, now she hears her whispering. Why didn’t you save me? When she looks in mirrors and windows, her friend surfaces in the glass, her hands out, wearing the blue dress she never got to wear to the prom. Every day, every minute, Helene is with her.
In bed Ben takes it a step farther and actually tells her he’s in love with her. This time it’s in English, not Latin, so she can’t pretend not to know what he’s talking about. “Ben,” she says. “Love is a false construct. It’s how people convince themselves that life is worth living.”
“I only know how I feel,” he tells her.
When Shelby falls asleep, she dreams she’s in a big green field. A man is calling to her. Do something, he tells her. It’s the writer of the postcards. She fears he wants more from her than she’s able to do. Isn’t leaving home enough? She sees the person’s shadow, but not the man himself. The grass grows taller, and the whole world smells like mint. Shelby’s hair has grown back in her dream, long golden-brown hair, the way it used to be. There are black butterflies rising from the grass, one after another, until they fill the horizon.
When Shelby wakes she finds herself wishing she were still inside her dream. It takes all her energy to get out of bed and make coffee. She opens the closet and sees that Ben has bought an ironing board that he crammed in beside the coats. He has taken to pressing his white shirts, secretly, while she’s asleep.
On her way to work she stops at the park. There is the platform; there are the dogs. This time a girl is with them. She has tattoos on her face, blue lines and swirls. Shelby gazes at the sky and notices the clouds are white on one side, blue on the other. If you slit them open with a knife something strange would likely fall down. Snow in the summer, postcards with no postmark, advice from above. The floppy, sleeping dog is balanced on the shopping bags, and the bulldog is on the sidewalk; it looks more alert than the tattooed girl and, frankly, much smarter.
The homeless girl senses someone near and opens her eyes. “I need money for dog food,” she announces. It’s as though she’s a robot with a single skill. She knows how to beg.
Shelby slips one of Ben’s dollars into a hat. He gives her spending money every week, and though she feels guilty, she accepts his generosity.
“What are the dogs’ names?” Shelby asks. It’s like a magic spell. If she knows their names she will be free of them.
“Fuck you,” the girl says. “I don’t give out that kind of information for a dollar.”
Stunned by the girl’s venom, Shelby takes off. She heads across the street to find her co-worker Maravelle waiting at the door of the pet store.
“What the hell did you do that for?” Maravelle asks. They’ve never said more than two words to each other, so Shelby is taken aback. “I saw you give her money. Those dogs are just props. Do you think they see a lick of that money? I used to give them a dollar or two until I noticed they always had a different owner. Those people aren’t begging for dog food.”
“I’m supposed to take advice from someone who works in a pet store?” Shelby remarks archly.
“Honey, you work in a pet store,” Maravelle reminds her, her mouth twisted into a smirk. She’s a beautiful woman who’s not about to take crap from a bald girl who stacks dog food.
Shelby feels shamed by her own rudeness. The truth is she likes Maravelle’s snappy attitude. “I wouldn’t work here if I had your voice.” Maravelle sings all day long, even when she’s ringing up people at the register. “Why don’t you get out of here and sing professionally? Be the next Mariah Carey.”