September '05 -- edited by Savannah Schroll
Mrs. Molly Fletcher had decided this year not to stand for any monkey business. “Kelly,” she was already saying on the first day of school, “I don’t think Beth wants to stay after school today, so will you kindly stop whispering in her ear.” Something about the sheepish expression on Kelly’s pretty face and Beth’s mortified look -- stringy-haired shy Beth, who was lucky to be spoken to at all, let alone whispered to by someone like Kelly -- settled in the pit of her teacherly stomach. It felt good to be in charge. It felt good to be unforgiving. She would stand with her hands folded behind her back and wait until the children were perfectly still. “Joshua, perhaps you and Petey have some tensions to work out in the locker room, but in the hallway we must keep our hands to ourselves,” she said, not looking at either boy but feeling their flush as the other students tittered. “Enough,” she snapped. They were silent. They were ever watchful, the wily little beasts. They noticed when she wore a spotted dress, when she trailed off and stared out a window. She knew they laughed behind her back. She knew they would be especially cruel to the kind of little girl she had been. Well, let them; she was the one with the grade book.
But she couldn’t help it -- the staring, the losing her train of thought -- in the middle of a sentence, sometimes! She thought of her new dog constantly, like a lover. She could almost see him out of the corner of her eye, racing around the playground, darting down a hall. And so one day she came home to walk him at lunchtime.
The dog did not leap up in excitement, did not knock things over with his tail or press his front paws to her chest, the way he usually did when she came home. He just lay there on the rug, lazily thumping his long frilled tail once. “What is it, little boy?” she said, kneeling to scratch his head. He sighed. Out the window was a brilliant early autumn day, the sky very bright and patterned with clouds shaped like circus animals. Her house seemed unusually dim. She curled on the rug beside him, smelling his pleasant, waxy ears. Maybe he was just tired. He might have allergies. Maybe he had eaten something that didn’t agree with him. But no, with her luck, it was probably a rare cancer or some sort of expensively treated hormonal condition. They had probably neutered him too early at the shelter, goddamn them. She stroked his heaving belly. Outside a breeze was stirring up leaves, the first ugly brown ones of the season, skittering across the driveway like discarded locust shells. She wanted to explain it to the dog, to tell him, it is almost autumn and then it will be winter, and everything will seem to die. After a while, she got up and drove back to school, without bothering to wipe the dog hair off her sweater.
The next day she gave the children a pop quiz and then excused herself, telling the school secretary to call a sub. There. She could feel her stomach settling as she pulled into the driveway. She had finally paid a neighbor boy to mow the lawn, and it spread before their house like a velvety blanket of Astroturf. What had once been a strip of pansies near the sidewalk revealed itself as a mess of gluey stems. Birds sang like the jangling of keys. “Here I am, sweetheart,” she said as she pushed open the door. “Scraps?” she called.
No jingling of tags. No scritch of claws on linoleum.
She sank down onto the kitchen floor, mournfully surveying the tufts of dog hair gathered in each corner. “Scraps?” she whispered. The pink rabbit, by now matted with saliva and punctured with tooth marks, lay sprawled near the dog’s crate. She picked it up and cradled it to her chest.
She walked around the house several times, checking in closets and under chairs, calling out his name, and then sat heavily on the couch. When she worked up the energy she guessed she would call animal control, or the police, or something. She looked at her husband’s chair facing the window, at the photographs on the walls. She had suspected something, but now that the dog was gone she didn’t know what to think.
Then the kitchen door opened, and in rushed a gust of crisp, leaf-scented air and the tangled sounds of tags singing and a man’s voice saying, “Good boy!”
And there he was. The dogwalker. “Hello!” Molly leaned forward but didn’t move, knees weak. “Who’s there?”
Scraps came barreling into the living room, his tongue waving like a man’s tie on a windy day. He jumped onto her, tail thumping, his muddy paws printing themselves across her good school dress. She rubbed him all over, whispering, “Oh Scraps.” The door slammed shut. She stood and followed the sound outside. “Hey!” Her scuffed pumps clacked against the driveway, her heart against her chest. “What’s going on here?”
The man hurrying down her driveway stopped and turned to face her. “I’m sorry!” he said, waving his hands in front of himself as if to discourage her from attacking. “I didn’t mean any harm.” She stood staring at him, hands on her hips. He was a youngish man wearing work pants and a flannel shirt. He could have been anyone. She looked at the dark eyes, his jaundiced face. He was a sick person, she couldn’t help thinking.
Finally she said, “You’ve been walking my dog!”
He shuffled his feet and nodded. “Yes ma’am,” he said softly.
Scraps threw himself against the windows and smeared his nose across the pane, trying to watch them closer.
“Well,” she said, keeping her voice steady.
“I didn’t steal anything,” he said.
“Well, heck, I know that.” She stopped. “Wait, I’m trying to think.”
He shoved his hands in his pockets. “You might lock your doors.”
“Well!” she said. “I might call the police!”
The stranger shrugged his shoulders and squinted down the street.
“I’ve lived in this neighborhood ten years, and we’ve never had to lock our door before!” she said, although this didn’t seem quite like what she’d meant to say.
He nodded and mumbled something.
“That’s my dog,” she said.
The sun ducked behind a block of clouds. A shadow fell on the man’s face, and he looked so small and sad there wasn’t anything she could do.
“Well, that’s that, then,” she said. She turned around and went back into her house. Scraps stayed at the window, watching the man walk down the block whistling a low sad song. Even the dog didn’t belong to her, not really, or anyway not for long.