blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Animal Control

Karla left because she hates dogs. I'd decided this much. There was no argument or loud display, no police called out to our home in the middle of the night. Our dogs lay on the couch and chairs, sprawled over the fabric like spilled drinks. They watched her as she filled the supermarket bag with clean underwear and a few bras and walked out. On the front porch, it was quiet, enough that you could hear the sprinkler heads in my neighbor's lawn popping up and hissing over the dry grass.

Not that you're ever listening, Karla said, but I'll be at Reggie's if you need me. She patted me on the head and walked away.

This is stupid, I said, but I didn't follow behind her.

What's so stupid? Now you can keep all the dogs you want, she said, swinging her head to the side to say this last bit. In her light blue halter top, she looked ten years younger, her hair fallen carefully across her bare tan shoulders. I don't know when she started dressing this way.

I've decided I don't want any more dogs, I said. I want you. I laughed at how pathetic I must have sounded, but Karla didn't join in. There was only my laughter dying out slowly with the desperate sound of my neighbor's sprinkler system.

I left his number in the address book next to their heartworm medicine, she said. She didn't stop to say this part, only spun and glided backwards, facing me. Her momentum was already carrying her body across the front yard towards our little orange Volkswagen.

I'll get rid of the dogs, I said finally, and I meant it. I would fill up the truck with every stray I had ever brought home to her and carry them to the office in the morning so Phyllis, who was in charge of our euthanasia cases, could do the dirty work.

Yeah, right, Karla said, leaning her hip against the car. I put a new twenty-pound bag by the back door. It should last you a good three days, but after that you're on your own.

Behind her, the sun was bowing in the sky, hunkering down like a guilty dog, you could say. Karla, her eyes flashing just once, tucked back into her silhouette. It was evening. I suppose a better man might have chased after his wife then, pulled her down and begged for anything he could get. Just one more chance.

I'll call you, I said, motioning with my hand as if it was a phone. I spoke into my pinky finger. For months now, I only knew Reggie as a voice on the other end asking for my wife. Or sometimes Reggie was something that made Karla's voice whisper into the receiver as she walked into another room of the house, disappearing for a few hours.

Don't call, she said and pulled the car door shut. The window squeaked as it rolled down. It was something else I had neglected. And then it happened, her hand reached through the open space and tried to wave. It was only a small gesture. As she backed out, I ran to the end of the driveway, and the beams swung and cut across me.

She slammed on the brakes, and a blade of light went through my chest.

Stop acting silly, she said and tapped the horn. She could have pulled away, but I know she was waiting for me to turn around and walk into the house. It would be easier if I did. I looked down at the light covering my beige work shirt and pants. Across my chest the little patch with my name sewn into it glowed. There was a thin slit on one of the knees from where Lightning, a new stray I had brought home, had caught some of the cloth and wouldn't let go even after I tried to pull him off. The dog was stubborn, the same way I was refusing to go wherever it was I was supposed to go.

You look like one of your mutts, she said and tapped the horn again. The sound nipped at me, made my knees almost buckle. I should have told her I didn't want her to leave. I spread my hands over the hood of the car to hold myself up. It surprised me that the metal was still cool. I wanted to open this part of the car and climb inside. There were tools in there—jacks and wrenches and spares, things for fixing other things. But I was just being stupid, and she knew it.

You can't come with me, she said.

Really? I said. I was standing up straight now, my arms drooped to the sides like a lazy gunfighter. That's when she took the opportunity. Even after the car sped off, I stood alone in the driveway, fighting off the sound of my neighbor's lawn. Like I said, it was quiet now. Our dogs, once the strays of this town, were sleeping right through it.


The day after Karla left, things were different. I was assigned a new truck at work. My old girlfriend from high school even called me at the animal control office and asked if I would come out to her neighborhood and take care of some more dogs.

People who live here pay way too many taxes, Evans said over the phone. They shouldn't have to worry about ones tearing them apart. Now what are you going to do about it?

Though she never said it, I knew she pitied me. Not because of Karla, but because she herself had married well and her life, it seemed to me, was only getting easier. In fact, her husband Frank was the city manager—which, in a roundabout way, made him my boss.

I told Evans I would take care of it. I drove my new truck to the supermarket in town and bought a few packages of reduced-price ground beef. Spots in the middle had browned. The rest was purple around the edges, nearly rotting. The only thing worse than this was that people were buying this stuff and taking it home and feeding it to their kids. You do what you have to do, I suppose.

I knew once I pulled the plastic off, those stray dogs would come running. The smell unbearable and enticing. It was how they were, which almost made this job too easy at times. Set the food out, and then slide a noose around them while they're distracted. This is the formula for catching anything. Distract, then capture.

In Evans' neighborhood, the lots are huge, more than twenty acres each. Some are still covered with trees, while others are cleared and professionally designed with curving walkways and sculpted bushes. It is a world where the driveways are swept clean by hired help, the concrete free of blemishes. It all makes me nervous to see how orderly some people live their lives.

She was waiting for me by the front door. I hadn't seen her in days. She had cut her hair, cropped short now and tucked behind her ears. She wore a skimpy, athletic-type skirt with a thin white tank top and brand new tennis shoes. She must have been on her way to a neighbor's to play tennis or to the local country club where she could relax at the bar area and be ogled by businessmen who took their two-hour lunches there. Sometimes I think she dressed this way just to get a reaction from me. I didn't tell her Karla was wearing halter tops now.

I thought you'd stop by, she said, running her finger across the dimple in my chin, smiling.

Evans, you asked me to stop by, I corrected her.

I was hoping you would, she said and reached for my hand. She twirled my wedding band with her thumb and index finger. I hadn't been faithful to Karla, just as she hadn't been faithful to me. Even so, even though Karla was probably wrapped around Reggie right at the moment, I should have turned and walked away. And yet, I let Evans touch me.

Years ago, we used to meet after school and go driving and think only of the future, of what we imagined our future would be—how we were going to spend our lives in a coastal town in Italy, drinking carafes of wine and waking, with the shuttered windows thrust open, to the hypnotic slush of the Mediterranean against the shore. Chalk it up to youth. We would park out on some deserted back road and slide out our clothes, at the edge of this neighborhood even, when the first lots were being cleared for development. Things were simpler then. We didn't have a past, only our future. When we ran into each other downtown a few months back, we both realized we had made the mistake of holding onto the past. I made the mistake of telling her I still thought of her often.

What does your wife think about that? she had said.

I don't really have no clue, I said, watching her smile, and I really don't care.

In the middle of the foyer, I did not think of anything from my life now. I did not think of Karla, or of Reggie, or of the two of them together in his shadowy apartment. Instead, I felt younger, as if my present life was pulling away like Lightning, the stray that tried to tear a piece of cloth from my pants. If I wanted to avoid the future, I could just let life as I knew it sink its teeth into me.

Evans grabbed my hand and brought my thumb to her mouth, parting her lips around it without sucking. I could feel her tongue curling at the tip of my skin. Her bright teeth pressed on either side of the knuckle, and she smiled, baring what looked like small fangs. I pulled my thumb slowly away.

You're the only one who still calls me Evans, she said. It was her maiden name.

That's funny, I said. I thought I was the only one who ever did.

She put both hands on her pleated white skirt and eyed me, grinning. Whether she liked it or not, I was a part of her past. She and Frank could sell off everything and go live in a villa on the coast of Italy, and still I would be there leaning against some wall in her mind. Standing in front of Evans now, I felt the impulse to call Karla and tell her I was going to be fine without her.

Look, she said. Take off those nasty boots and put these on. She tapped her shoe against a pair of suede leather house slippers nestled next to an umbrella holder and two pairs of galoshes. The plush slippers were, no doubt, Frank's.

I looked out the decorative side pane to check on my new truck. I wondered if the neighbors ever questioned why Animal Control was always visiting Frank Dempsey's house. The sun must have been the only thing in the sky, because the paint was almost glittering it was so bright, especially the words in a vibrant blue across the door—Animal Control. When I turned back around, I found her kneeling to untie my work boots. I slid my foot into the padded lamb's wool of one of the slippers, but then pulled it out immediately.

I can't do this again, I said, balancing on one foot.

Yes, you can, she said. She tore at my belt and tried to loosen it. And you will. She was trying to pull me down with her.

I don't think so, I said calmly, though in my mind I was frantic. I stopped her hands. I limped away and took a seat at the bottom of the stairs where I grabbed my boot by the tongue and started putting it on. Evans climbed up behind me and rested her face on the back of my neck.

I don't know what got into me, she said.

Don't worry about it.

I'm going to divorce Frank, she said. Not that it matters to you.

You're right, I said. But I'm sorry to hear it anyway. And I really was.

It's not because of you, so don't worry about moving out the dogs to make room for me. She wrapped her arms around me and laughed. You know, Karla is a saint for putting up with you.

For putting up with both of us, I corrected her. I tried to stand up, but she was holding on too tightly.

What's wrong? she said, lifting her head up.

I looked around at the brightness of the foyer, the brass-plated things and the shiny trim. Do you ever just look at your life and wonder how it all happened? I said. I planted my hands on my knees, readying myself to stand, but then didn't try to get up. I sat back against her and felt her weight press against me again. It was comforting.

Sure, she whispered and put her arms around me. Sometimes Frank and I go weeks without really saying anything to each other.

That's not so hard, I said.

I suppose, but this isn't what I wanted.

I looked down at her hands folded in front of me. She had stopped wearing her wedding rings months ago. I wondered if Karla had made the same small gesture without me knowing. I was a man that had stopped looking at his wife's hands.

He'll be back in there, she said, pointing to the side office, and I'll be on the couch in the living room with the TV muted. I'll try to read something, a magazine article or a book or watch a show, and it never fails, there's this silence that gets so loud it almost kills you. The next thing you know, it's another day, and what's worse, we sleep in the same bed and not once does he touch me the way he used to. Her breath tickled the hairs on my neck. I didn't know what to say.

If you guys do get divorced, you can go live in Piombino or wherever it was we used to dream about going. I gestured wildly with my hands, kissing my bunched fingertips. It was the wrong thing to say, and I regretted it the moment I said it.

You're silly, she said and patted my chest. God, I didn't even think you were listening to me back then. She rested her head on the back of my neck, and I was grateful for it. Like so many times before, I told myself I wasn't going to say another word.

The driveway curved like a spine all the way to the edge of the street. I didn't turn around to look at her. I knew she had already allowed herself to fall back into her life. Maybe it was the easiness in which we let go of things that kept pulling us back, even though it was obvious we didn't have a future. I didn't love Evans. She was already forgetting about me, which is the true blessing at the heart of any real affair; and as I walked toward the truck, I found myself wondering not about Evans, but about her husband Frank and how he probably had no idea what was about to happen to him, the poor bastard.

I opened the door to the rear cage and could almost make out my face hiding in the shiny metal. It was a new truck, and the compartment had yet to hold one stray. There were no dulled patches from scrapes or claws scratching, and the metal itself seemed to hum in the sunlight from its own cleanliness. I looked for my face again and found it only as a blur against steel. It hovered there in the middle of the cage's flooring, and I closed the door on it.


Heading back into a new phase of the neighborhood where a few lots were being cleared, I spot one of the strays with its orange and black coat sliding behind a mound of pulled stumps. Its hunched body pauses for a moment, as if it knows why I'm here, and then takes off to the far edge of the lot, where it is impossible for me to drive the truck. Where the other one, I am certain, must be waiting for it to return.

I carry a tray of meat, holding it out before me. One of the strays peeks its head around the track of a dormant bulldozer, and takes note of where I've set the meat in the middle of the clearing. I wait a good distance away and try not to move as they both come out slowly. First it is the female, and then the thin male following her. They are both hungry. And as I watch them, I feel a certain amount of pity for us all. It is not their fault they live the way they do. I keep telling myself this after I load them in the truck and turn around to head back through the winding street. They bark as I pass Evans' house, until I am out of the neighborhood completely.

Tonight, I have left the windows open. The cool air moving across the curtains could be a ghost for something, the far-off sea and the young couple making love to the sound of it, some other place. But I don't care. This is not about the past. All I know is that Karla left a message at the office saying she would call. Now it is close to midnight , and I'm still waiting for the phone to ring.

The moment I answer, she says, Hank, I'll come over as long as you promise you'll listen to everything I have to say.

I will, I say.

Even if you don't agree with it, you can't interrupt me or throw stuff at the wall. You need to know some things. And for Christ's sakes, at least put the dogs in the backyard where they belong. She sounds like a different woman, or maybe I am just a different man listening to his wife, the one who didn't need to change.

I'll make coffee, I say. I yawn but try my hardest not to let her hear me doing so.

It doesn't have to be tonight, she says, pausing. We can do this tomorrow. No one said it had to be tonight. And she's right. It doesn't have to be tonight. It could be tomorrow if she wants it that way, and that would be fine.

I am sitting back on the couch listening to her voice now. One of the dogs has wandered into the living room to be with me. I rub the patch of orange and black swirled across his throat, and when I stop and sit back, paying more attention now to what Karla has to say, he disappears into the other room. It is a small lesson, or at least I feel like it is a lesson to consider. I don't tell her we now have two more dogs in the house. I don't tell her that I've held off naming them or that the female looks swollen with a large litter.

Instead, I say, Come home, and this time the silence, loyal to the lull in any given moment, hunkers down. It waits for the both of us.  

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