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“Because I have three children and I’m a realist. I know I’m not as good as Mariah.”
“I think you’re good.” This may be the first compliment she’s given in years.
“Not as good. That’s the thing. Don’t give those people any more money,” Maravelle warns. “They just drink and drug it away.”
All the same, Shelby goes to the window to keep an eye on the girl with the dogs. The scene is so upsetting that she stays in the store at lunch in order to avoid them. She has a slice of the pizza her co-workers have delivered.
“Well, what do you know! You actually consume food. Go on, E.T.,” Juan from the lizard department says to her. “Have two pieces if you want.”
When Shelby leaves work she sees that the shift in the park has changed as well. Now the dogs are back with the kid Shelby first saw. Maravelle comes up beside Shelby, matching her stride. “You really think my voice is that good?”
“I do.”
“Yeah, well, what do you know? I’ll bet you’ve never even listened to Mariah Carey.”
True enough. Shelby is more a fan of sad singer-songwriters. Her current favorite duo is called The Weepies. She loves The Decemberists. She prefers music about lost love, lost souls, and lost opportunities. But she does know a beautiful voice when she hears one. “I don’t ordinarily give out compliments,” Shelby assures her co-worker. “But you can sing.”
Maravelle nods. “I’ve never heard you say a nice word to anyone. So I appreciate the comment.”
Unless Shelby is completely crazy, the French bulldog is staring at her from across the street. “Don’t your kids want pets? If you gave those rats a good shampoo, they’d be cute. Your kids would love them.”
“Do you know what my life is like? I’m a single mother with three kids. I don’t have time for that. If you’re so worried about those dogs, you take them.”
Shelby makes a face. “I can’t take care of anything.”
“Why don’t you try to do something?” Maravelle says.
“What did you say?” Shelby feels a lump in her throat. She wonders if Helene is talking to her through other people, repeating the postcard messages she receives, whispering about her failures.
“I said N-O. I do not want any pets. Not now and not ever. Although those things do look sad,” she says of the dogs.
As they cross the street together, Shelby and Maravelle come up with a plan. They work well together, almost as if they’re friends. As decided, Shelby hangs back when Maravelle begins to sing in the middle of Union Square. Even though she’s used to hearing her at the pet shop, Shelby is amazed at the sheer power of her voice. Those beautiful birdsong trills are thrilling in the open air. A hush comes over the park, and people draw close, forming a crowd. Someone tosses some money down, and soon enough others follow suit. The homeless kid, annoyed that his space has been invaded, has started to shout. He sets off to harass his competition, declaring that he’ll have her arrested for disturbing the peace.
This is the plan, to distract him so that Shelby can sneak over to the rolling platform. Once there she quickly unties the rope around the bulldog’s neck. He gazes at her, as though he’s been expecting her. “I’m doing something,” Shelby tells the dog. He doesn’t blink. The drugged-out, shaggy one startles when she picks him up. Something’s wrong with him; he can only open one eye, but he starts to doze again as soon as he’s in Shelby’s arms. He weighs next to nothing. “Let’s go,” Shelby says to the bulldog. She thinks of him as the smart one, and indeed, he follows without a leash, with a bowlegged but dignified gait.
When Ben gets home from school, he drops his briefcase smack down on the floor and stares at the dogs on the couch. “Seriously?” he says. “Two of them? Where’d they come from? The ugly dog department?”
Shelby has already ordered dinner delivered from Hunan Kitchen, making certain to choose all the dishes Ben likes most, including the spicy tofu that Shelby hates along with General Tso’s chicken, their shared favorite.
“They were being tortured.” Shelby’s already bathed them in the kitchen sink, and the odor of wet dog permeates the apartment. In the morning she’ll use the allowance Ben gives her to buy leashes and collars and dog food. Tonight she feeds them white rice mixed with chicken, which they inhale.
“Let me guess.” Ben accepts a plate of food and collapses on the couch next to the one-eyed dog. “One is Yin and the other is Yang? Or Heckle and Jeckle? Spock and Kirk?”
“The one next to you is Blinkie. The other one is General Tso.” The names come to her then and there.
“You named them without me?” Ben actually sounds hurt.
“Well, if anything happens and we break up, they’d be my dogs.” Shelby doesn’t realize how cold this sounds until she sees Ben’s expression.
“Is that your plan?” Ben puts down his plate, not noticing when Blinkie snags a piece of tofu. His sight is good enough to steal food.
“Ben.” Shelby throws up her hands. “I don’t have a plan. Isn’t that obvious?”
She surprises him that night in bed when she embraces him. She’s never the one to initiate sex, but she moves on top of him and begins to kiss him, so deeply it seems she loves him, and maybe she does, although what does love matter in a world where it’s so easy to hurt someone?
All through the summer Shelby walks the dogs along the riverside before work. Since Ben asked her if she had a plan, she can’t stop thinking about the fact that she’s an aimless nothing. On the street people stay away from her because she still shaves her head and she wears her hoodie even when it’s ninety degrees. Clearly, she looks like someone who’s about to snap. But she’d already done that and all she got out of it was a stay in the hospital, where they told her to squeeze frozen oranges to bring her back to reality when she was having a panic attack. As if reality was what she wanted.
Shelby writes to colleges, but she’s so conflicted she throws the catalogs into the trash as soon as they arrive. And then one day she leaves the dogs at home and walks up to Hunter College and signs up for two classes, Latin, because she figures then she’ll know what Ben is talking about, and Principles of Biology. Maybe a science class will help her make sense of the world. She tells Ben that she’ll be out on Tuesday and Thursday nights.