Better than Starbucks Fiction
I needed more paper towels. My husband and I woke at 3 a.m. to the sound of our dog Pepper squirting onto the carpet. I had a feeling the rotten crab apples she vacuumed during our walks would catch up to her, but I was hoping it would cause less of a crime scene.
Ben untangled himself from our bed and escorted a somber Pepper to the back door, her long ears sagging to the ground. I stumbled around the house in a half-awake stupor, looking for something I could use to clean the mess, only to discover a paper towel roll with one sheet left. I sacrificed one of our older dishtowels, one with a strawberry pattern, sprayed the last three drops of carpet cleaner onto it, and scrubbed the carpet in feverish circles.
This is not what people have in mind when they adopt puppies. Most viral videos depict an ecstatic adult drowning in a sea of fuzzy ears and stubby tails. A man rolls around with ten Goldendoodles that lick his face and tug his shoelaces. What joy. No one watches videos where one puppy takes a dump that another puppy consumes.
It’s morning, and the kitchen swims around me. I open a cabinet door, and discover we don’t have coffee filters. I can feel my ears begin to burn. What the hell do I do when I’m at the store?
“We need a Costco membership,” I say.
Pepper jumps and extends her long front legs onto the counter.
“Get the fuck down!” I yell.
Ben says, “Okay, but do you remember our last trip to Costco?”
I stare at Ben and wait for him to refresh my memory. The collar of his work shirt is stained with toothpaste, and his hair is matted to one side of his head. He’s one of those people who plays videogames until midnight then slips into his clothes and out the door in less than ten minutes every morning. In the time we’ve lived together, I recall seeing him look in a mirror only a handful of times.
“You said Costco was ‘overrated,’ remember? You were most impressed with the onion dispenser.”
“That was a damn good hotdog.”
“If you want a Costco membership, let’s get one. I have to go, though. Love you.”
Ben plants a sloppy kiss on my forehead, and I stifle the urge to wipe it off.
“Love you, too,” I say.
“Be safe,” he says.
“Thanks Dad,” I say in the mousey voice I use to tell Pepper that Ben’s home. We’ve become the nauseating set of pet parents who can’t decide between a bumblebee or a ladybug outfit to stuff their “fur child” into for Halloween.
Pepper and I stare impatiently at each other. Her mouth is agape, and her tootsie roll eyes look like they’re about to melt right off her face. She’s part hound, so her sadness droops extra low. She looks like she’s trying to explain to me the unfortunate predicament she’s in. Two weeks ago she was in a similar one. She had stolen and devoured an entire bag of grapes, and I had to take her to the vet to get her stomach pumped. There’s still charcoal stains on her pink collar.
I pity Pepper. She can’t help it. Some dogs literally eat themselves to death. What a sick world we live in where dogs can OD on grapes.
Pepper scrapes her paws against my turned back, protesting my trip to the drug store. While I’m at the store, I buy an eight-pack of paper towels, carpet cleaner, and a grass-fed beef bone to make up for leaving her behind. She’s probably making it rain in the kitchen at this very moment.
I carry the paper towels in my arms; the plastic packaging rubs against my chin. It’s a sunny fall day in suburbia. Lawns are trimmed and leaf-free, but littered in goose shit that Pepper likes to eat. Cars whir in all directions. Drivers who pass me stare at me with long faces, probably wondering why I'm not at work.
I feel a buzz in my back pocket. I place the paper towels on the ground with the rest of the items on top of it, and reach for my phone. My co-worker wants to know why I forgot to run someone’s article last month. I offer her no explanation and tell her we’ll run it next month.
I hear a rustling of leaves. There’s a man walking behind me about 50 feet away. White, middle-aged, feathery hair that glows in the sun. He has his hands in his pockets and walks leisurely. I pick up my items and cross the intersection.
About a block away from my house, a silver Honda rockets to the side of the road next to me. It lets out a perturbed honk. The driver is a black woman with a shimmery purple cloth bundled on top of her head.
“Do you need a ride?” she asks me through her window. The whites of her eyes bulge.
“Uhh, no. Thanks though,” I tell her slowly.
Then she points one red nail at the man walking down the street behind me, “Do you know this man?”
He and I exchange baffled looks, then he squints up at the sky, and I back at the woman.
“No, I don’t know him,” I tell her.
“Are you sure you don’t need a ride then?”
“Thank you, but no. I really appreciate the gesture. I live just down the block,” I tell her.
“Okay … well, stay safe.”
The woman’s eyes linger on my face for a while, like she’ll need remember it for later. Then she watches the man, who’s now made it all the way down the block past my house. He’s whistling.
I smile to reassure her. A stranger has never cared this much about my safety.
I’m relieved to find Pepper curled up on her bed in the kitchen. Nothing has been soiled or destroyed.
She’s happy to see me until she notices the plastic bag in my hand. She thrusts her long snout into the bag, and I push her back.
“Pepper, sit,” I say in my sternest voice.
After squirreling her ass around, she sits it down, not exactly touching the ground, more so levitating slightly above it. Her mouth is agape again, and she’s silently summoning me to produce what’s rightfully hers. She nods her head in exaggerated goodness.
I place the bone in her quivering jaws, and she bites down. She drops it to the floor and bats it between her paws.
In the three months I’ve known Pepper, I’ve learned that she is the perfect fit for chasms. Like the one that grows in bed between two people as night takes them. The world is sane and secure when she’s nestled in the small of my back or adding to the warmth between my legs. Though different during waking hours, I still find it easier to slip into uncharted realms of possibility with a companion who has blind, stupid trust in me. Dogs are believers.
I stare out our sliding door, past the abstract wet nose paintings on the glass. I glare at the crabapple tree, which splits down the middle and veers off into two directions. Bees bounce back and forth from its fallen spawn, rotting in the grass.
There are several deflated crabapples scattered across our patio that will surely lead Pepper to temptation. I reach for the broom behind my fridge and crack open the sliding door. Pepper watches me as I sweep the red beasts into the grass.
When I turn back around, her face is gone. I slide open the door.
“Pepper?” I call, but there is no sound of limbs skidding across the floor.
“Pepper?” I call again, shoving a couch and peering behind it.
My attention turns to the door, which is still open. Panic jolts inside my chest, as my brain formulates scenarios of screeching wheels and a lifeless Pepper in the middle of the road.
I race outside. There’s a child swinging on a swing in the park across the street. He’s wearing light-up shoes. I recognize him. His name is Om, the sound that people making when they’re meditating, which I could use a little of right about now. A few weeks ago, Om popped his head over the brick wall surrounding our house and introduced himself to Pepper, who I had to wrestle down so he could pat her on the head. Om and Pepper have become fast friends. He waits in the same spot for me to return from work everyday and take Pepper out for our walk.
“Where’s my friend?” he asks me as I approach him. His heels touch the woodchips, and the lights play tag in his shoes.
“I don’t know actually. I was hoping you had seen her run past here?”
“Oh no, Pepper is lost?” his eyes bulge and forehead creases. He looks adult-like in his fear.
“I think she may have escaped out the back door,” I tell him. “Will you please come find me if you see her?”
Om nods his head dutifully, a silent salute.
A brisk walk turns into a sprint, which turns into brisk walk. I circle the next block and the next. Lawn gnomes mock me with jolly smiles. Geese hiss. A bored yellow lab sits in a driveway unattended, warming in the sun. No one can help me.
I think about calling Ben, but don’t want him to electrocute himself while he’s wiring a panel. That and I don’t want the sound of my own terror to be reflected back to me. It was Ben’s idea to get this dog, I think, wanting to free myself from all blame.
I decide to stand on top of a baseball mound for elevation. I peer around a dewy field and there in the bowl of it, is a man. He’s wearing a plaid button-up; it’s open, exposing a large gut. His hair glows. It’s the same man from this morning.
At the man’s foot is a soft pile of fur with a cowhide pattern, like Pepper. The pile isn’t moving. The man begins to let out a low scratchy laugh that sounds like metal scraping against the pavement, and I begin to sprint toward him. I’ve never fought another person, let alone a man before, but the adrenaline propels me forward, and my fists tighten and burn.
“Get the hell away from my dog!” I scream.
“Pardon?” he asks, peering down at me.
“What did you do to her?” I don’t recognize my high-pitched, needlepoint voice. I feel like I’m drowning in the man’s eyes, blue as swimming pools.
Pepper springs from the grass and lunges at me. Her tails whips around. She licks my still-clenched fists.
“Is this your dog? I saw her running and called her over to me. She really likes her tummy pet,” he giggled.
“Uh, yeah…” I say. I’m slightly taken aback because I have never heard a grown man giggle or use the word “tummy” in a sentence.
“What’s her name?”
“Oh, Pepper is a pretty name.”
Pepper nudges the man’s hand covered in skin that could be tree bark. He scratches behind her ear, and she squints in contentment.
He says to her, “I bet you’d like to go home with your mom now, wouldn’t you, Pepper?” Her tails smacks the grass.
The knots in my chest loosen. I tell him, “Yeah, it’s been an eventful morning. She ate all these crabapples and got sick. And then she takes off.”
“Poor baby. Boil some chicken and rice for her. Serve it plain. Skip the dog food,” he tells me. “My old dog, Sadie, she loved crap apples too. Err… she still loves them I’m sure. I haven’t seen her in a while. My wife took her when she left.”
I wonder if the five o’clock shadow and grease stains are indicators that his wife left him more recently, but I don’t want to ask anything about his personal life.
“Okay, well, thanks for calling her over to you. I appreciate it,” I tell him, grabbing Pepper by the harness.
“Maybe I can play with her again, sometime? If we run into each other again?” he asks.
“Sure,” I laugh.
The man smiles. I think about Om peering over my brick wall with his toothless grin, asking to pet Pepper. It’s the same face.
Sarah Cimarusti, a Chicago writer and editor, published in Bayou Magazine, Bird's Thumb, and Jersey Devil Press for creative nonfiction and fiction pieces.
When not writing, she reads for Profane Journal and had a large hand in selecting the fiction lineup for the upcoming winter issue.