Puppy Love

Sam Slaughter


        The dog, a rust-colored terrier, bounced its softball-sized head twice off the chain link fence before Jerry stopped him.
         “Woah, pup. It’s okay, Mac,” Jerry said, scooping up the dog in one hand. He could feel the dog’s ribs in his palm. The little ridges reminded him of chicken carcasses after barbecues back home in New Hampshire. He held the dog up to his face. Mac paddled the air with his front paws, but otherwise didn’t squirm.
         Mac’s eyes seemed cloudier than normal. Probably partially blind, the vet tech had said. But it could be any number of things. It’s hard to tell without more tests, which you know we can’t afford. The vet tech’s words hung in Jerry’s head. He pictured an empty IV bag.
         It was just another dog with something wrong with it. All of the dogs at the shelter seemed defective. Their first owners didn’t think they were good enough, they didn’t want them. Jerry suppressed thoughts of his parents dropping him off when he was four at his grandparents’ apartment with his clothes and toys and two sets of wedding China -a payment.  They were on their way west, they said. They needed to be.
         Instead, Jerry listed the reasons people gave when they brought dogs in. There were the we-just-can’t-afford-‘em-anymores and the our-apartment-changed-its-rules and well-we-just-found-them-on-the-side-of-the-roads. Yeah, Jerry wanted to say, the side of the road. The whole litter of them? Really? Fascinating.
         There was something about the way those people said it that unsettled him.They looked away, looked up at the sky for a quarter-second—Jerry had read in class that usually meant someone was lying. The people knew they were lying, and he knew they were lying, but he couldn’t do anything about it. They knew that too.
         He was just a volunteer. He spent five hours a week with the dogs and put on a smiling face when people came to adopt. That was it. The staff, while nice, didn’t care all that much either. To them, Jerry thought, he was just someone who could feed the animals and clean shit and take dogs out for air. He had no say in who adopted who, and he certainly couldn’t press charges against neglectful owners. He was just Jerry, the private college volunteer. The guy who said he wouldn’t be like his parents and would never cross the Mississippi.
         Mac started squirming and making noises like a miniature thunderstorm. Jerry cooed in his ear and put him back down where Mac proceeded to bonk his skull off the fence again. Each time, the chain links creaked and rattled. It wasn’t enough to shake the whole fence, but it made a point. It was Mac’s cry for help, Jerry thought. Help me stop running into fences. Save me from brain damage.
         There was only so much Jerry could do, though. He could take the dogs out to play and make sure they realized not all humans were terrible, but what beyond that? After all the hours with all the dogs, what did it come down to? Not much, Jerry thought as he kicked some dead leaves to the corner of the pen, not too damn much.
         Jerry sat down on the concrete pad and called Mac over. The puppy bounced over, alternating back and front paws like the concrete was too hot.  Jerry smiled. The energy was nothing if it wasn’t cute. Everything Mac did was cute. He was a puppy, after all.
         “Hell,” Jerry said, “You’re even cute when you shit.”
         Jerry could hear the dogs barking in the holding cells in the back where they kept all the dogs picked up off the streets. The abandoned ones. It was impossible not to hear the howls of pain or desperation or whatever possessed the dogs to open their mouths.
         He never told his classmates who were interested in volunteering about those noises. Jerry didn’t mention the twin pangs of helplessness and chaos that tore at him like fighting animals whenever he walked into the dog room. Once one dog sees someone all hell breaks loose. Howls and growls, cages rattling like twenty cans filled with pennies.
         Jerry didn’t mention, either, the yowls of a sick dog, one that seemed to know it’d never be adopted. They were mournful and slow, like a slide flute at its lowest register, and reverberated in the empty cages. Those yowls were minimalized, though, because most sick dogs were kept in the back building. Less of a chance to infect.
         It amazed Jerry that Mac had made it up to the front from the back there. He wasn’t sick, but he probably couldn’t see.  He had gotten the call up—been promoted—and could be adopted, but not by Jerry. The apartment complex didn’t allow dogs and took delight in levying fines against students who snuck them in.  He could be adopted and never left in foster care.
         The dog nibbled on Jerry’s fingers.  His small teeth felt like toothpicks. Jerry hooked a finger under the dog’s upper teeth, feeling the ridges on the inside of Mac’s mouth and pulled. Not hard and not a lot, just enough for the dog to get the point.  Mac stopped gnawing and Jerry smiled.
         With a dog in his lap and the Carolina sunshine warming the ground and air, Jerry felt happy in that moment. Jerry and Mac were the picture of contentment as long as you didn’t let the chain link fences rise into the image. Sitting at the shelter wasn’t like sitting in hours of classes that he wasn’t sure were worth the tuition. He felt he accomplished something here. Jerry was helping something else, not just himself. 
         He wanted to keep that up for more than an hour a day. He wanted to take Mac home. He could see it all—could see himself coming back from class to find Mac asleep on the couch with NPR on, could see trips to Petsmart or the dog park, Mac running at the end of his leash and bumping into everything.. He wanted Mac but couldn’t have him, just like he couldn’t have had the hundreds of other dogs that had come through the shelter since Jerry had started volunteering two years ago, during his sophomore year.

         It was Friday at noon and Jerry was hung over. The Tylenol had done nothing, but he didn’t want to sit in his apartment all day, so he threw on the darkest sunglasses he could find and went to the shelter. The drive took him through the slums that pimpled the streets just below the college. Students tried to avoid them as much as possible by not leaving campus, but Jerry ignored them. He looked at the buildings—slums like he saw around Boston as a kid. They lacked front doors and recent paint jobs.  He wondered how many other students knew these places existed, that there weren’t just manicured lawns and classes that, in the end, didn’t matter all that much because of grade inflation.
         Katie, the front desk girl, smiled like she knew something when he shuffled in. She’s judging me, Jerry thought. He clenched his jaw and smiled.
         “Your buddy may be getting adopted today,” Katie said over her shoulder. A spreadsheet was open on the screen in front of her and she was pecking letters in.
         “Mac, the terrier-mix,” Katie said. “There’s a couple looking at him now. They’re out back, they seem okay. They’re not meth heads or anything. Or at least they don’t look like it. Guy says he works for the Mighty Crickets.”
         The crappy local baseball team. If he’s a player, Jerry thought, he’ll never be around. That wouldn’t be a good match at all. Mac needed someone around constantly. Like Jerry. The man would be gone more often that not, which was worse than just leaving once and for all.
         Jerry nodded, signed in, grabbed a leash and stepped back outside. He could hear voices in the outdoor pen and walked over. A woman—pretty, but not model pretty—sat in a plastic chair. Her skirt rode up too high on her cottage cheese thighs, and she wore a shirt with glittery words like the ones he saw the local high school girls wear at the mall. Jerry thought about a picture he still kept of his parents. In it, Jerry, just a baby, was on the yellow roof of a Playskool buggy with his hands reaching out to something. Behind him, with a hand on his back like he was a ventriloquist puppet, stood his mother. She wasn’t looking at the camera, but she was looking at something. Her shirt, what always came to mind when he thought of the photo, was studded in jewels. It looked like she had made it herself—spent hours hunched over the shirt with a mail-order bedazzling kit—and that always irked Jerry. Why would she wear that for a photo? Couldn’t she have worn something that made her look like the adult she was supposed to be? His father was in the photo, but only barely. You could see the tips of his fingers creeping into the frame.
         Next to her sitting cross-legged on the ground was a guy whose muscles screamed roid rage. Mac sat about five feet away, gnawing on a green and white rope. The couple called to Mac. They whistled, patted their thighs—a sound like a dog shaking its fur out. They called him in sing-songy tones and snapped their fingers. When none of it worked, the man got onto his knees and crawled forward to grab the rope, dragging Mac towards them.
         “Good boy,” the man said, scratching Mac behind the ear. Maybe he didn’t want to come over, Jerry thought, leaning on the fence and watching.
         “Hello,” the woman said, noticing Jerry. Her voice was defensive, like she wanted to keep Mac to herself, like no one was allowed to watch the exchange at a city-owned facility.
         Jerry greeted them. Their names were Sue and Tim, and they lived in town. They were newish, but wanted to be settled and thought a dog would help with that.
         “Are you looking for anything specific?” Jerry said. He hoped they were. He hoped he could steer them away from Mac. Maybe, if he waited it out long enough, he’d graduate and just take Mac with him wherever he was going.  Jerry could show them Rory, the lab mix—the perfect family dog. Rory wasn’t a college student dog—the poor thing would develop something after just one typical Friday night. Like a complex or a disease. Jerry sometimes wondered how he himself hadn’t gotten a disease.
         Staring at them, Jerry knew—just knew—that the couple wasn’t good enough for Mac.  They didn’t listen to his wishes, and you had to do that with a puppy, especially one from a shelter. You needed to be kind, caring. If it wanted to sit where it was, let it sit where it was for a while.
         Sue smiled and shook her head. “We want something smaller. Our house isn’t that big.”
         “He needs a lot of space,” Jerry said, nodding to Mac, who was on his back now with the rope still in his mouth.
         It wasn’t true, but what did Jerry have to lose? He didn’t think he could get barred from the shelter for lying to someone. They needed the help, and a little white lie wouldn’t prohibit him from cleaning cages.
         “He does?” Tim said. He had stopped pulling on the rope, and Mac took advantage of the moment to scoot to the other side of the pen.
         Jerry nodded.
         “I see,” Tim said. He scratched his arm.  Jerry continued to stand there and watch Mac.
         “Do you have any questions?”
         The couple exchanged a look.
         “No,” Sue said, taking a step towards Jerry. “We’re good.” She gave a quick, two-finger wave and turned her back on him before calling to Mac, who ignored her.
         Jerry shrugged and went back inside to get another dog. When he was back outside, the trio was no longer in the playpen. Through the floor-to-ceiling glass panes, he could see Tim bent over the front counter, scribbling. Jerry hoped he was having a seizure.  Sue stood behind the man Jerry thought might be her husband, Mac in her arms and a purple leash draped over the crook of her arm like a dead snake.

        It wasn’t the same. The other dogs could be fun, but they weren’t Mac. They could see where they were going. They could take care of themselves. They forced Jerry to think about the homework he had waiting for him and the cheap beer poured into plastic cups that smelled like bleach. There would be the call from his grandfather asking about job prospects, prodding at the fact he had none.
         Jerry had a yellow lab, Gonzo, in the playpen about a week after Mac had been adopted. Gonzo was busy chasing a tennis ball that looked like a busted grape, more gray rubber than green fuzz. The dog would drop the ball a few inches from Jerry, wait, run and repeat. The brick wall pricked Jerry’s back as he leaned against it, and it almost felt good. It was refreshing to Jerry, like a good back scratch after sex—not that he was getting either of those.
         After tossing the ball for what had to have been the fortieth time, Katie poked her head out of the door that led from the surgery room to the pen.
         “How’s he doing?” she said. She had Cheetos dust stuck in the blonde hairs around her mouth. They made her lips glow like a sunset.
         “Gonzo?” Jerry said. He took a moment to stare at the dog, who, sensing the attention was on him, hunched down and wagged his tail. “As labby as a lab can be.”
         The ball popped out of Gonzo’s mouth and rolled in front of Jerry. The dog dropped, barked once and army crawled across the ground after it.
         “That’s good,” she said, smiling. Her smile glowed as she stood and watched the dog, which now ignored both Jerry and Katie, content on trying to bisect the broken ball. Katie took a step closer to Jerry. He looked sidelong at her, but said nothing for a moment.
         “Hey, how is Mac doing?”
         “Mac,” Katie said, repeating the name a few times. It made her sound like a duck. “He the little one?”
         “Not too little.”
         “Oh, yeah,” she slapped her thigh and pointed at Jerry, “The blind one.”
         “How is he?” Jerry raised his eyebrows and cocked his head slightly.
         “Fine, I guess.”
         “You don’t follow up?”
         Katie shrugged and said they didn’t have the time. If something was bad, they’d hear about it one way or another.
         “Oh,” Jerry said.
         Katie nodded, looked once more at Gonzo, then Jerry, then walked back inside.
         Twenty minutes later, Jerry had just finished washing his hands when Katie stopped him. He wanted to go home—he had a couch that was screaming his name—but he stopped and put on a smile.
         “What’s up?”
         “I really need to go to the bathroom,” she said. She was standing behind the front counter, leaning on it and bouncing on the balls of her feet. “Can you just watch the desk for a moment? It’s an emergency, or I wouldn’t ask you.”
         “Sure,” he said. She bolted from her spot. Jerry heard the door slam and the exhaust fan thrum on.
         Jerry sat on the front counter for a moment before he realized he was alone. He swung his legs up and over and moved into the desk chair. He flipped through the records drawer files. When he found Mac’s file, he copied the address on a sticky note before Katie had finished. When she came back, Jerry was leaning back in the chair. He had his feet up on the counter and his hands folded on his stomach.
        “The chair isn’t that comfortable,” Katie said.
        “Better than wood,” Jerry said, standing.
        Jerry stood on the opposite side of the street from the house. It wasn’t what he had expected. There were no cars in the driveway, so Jerry felt okay standing and observing. If anyone asked, he’d say he was lost. He took a moment to look at the house behind him, a cake batter yellow ranch that looked to be sinking in on itself. The grass had been dead for decades. The driveway had a bike in it, propped up against the garage door and chained to a drainage pipe. Ceramic and plastic bears littered the lawn. Bears smiling. Bears waving. Two bears, spaced five feet apart, looking like they were playing Frisbee. All the bears looked friendly. Too friendly.
         Everything else about the house, from the white trim to the gables to the home security company sign wedged between two cabbage plants looked normal. It was a normal house for normal people who had a normal dog. It was nothing like the house Jerry grew up in, with a kerosene heater in the kitchen that they slept around during the winter, camped out on the floor like they were boy scouts because his parents couldn’t manage their money. Mac wasn’t a normal dog, though. He was Mac, the best dog ever. Jerry looked in the windows, searching for a sign of canine life. After fifteen minutes, he gave up, turned a local metal band’s CD on, and drove off.
         Jerry cruised past the house daily. He started with drive-bys, three or four times a day. After a week of no cars in the driveway, the bears never repositioned in new scenes of ursine joy—he figured he was moving past too fast.
         For the next two weeks, Jerry parked a few blocks over and jogged by the house. Still nothing. Once, he saw a neighbor sweeping her driveway, her straw broom making the sound of pulling Velcro as its bristles scraped the asphalt. He didn’t say anything to her, and she paid him no mind, content to push grass clippings one way then another. Jerry’s jogs got slower. By week three, he was walking. He walked in athletic shorts and tennis shoes—just in case—but he walked nonetheless. He thought while he walked. He thought, sometimes, about why he was in the social sciences and if Kelly, the sorority girl who ended up in his bed occasionally, might be sleeping with someone else, or multiple someone elses.
         A month into Jerry’s campaign, they were there. Sue, Tim and Mac. Mac was chained to a pole in the middle of the yard. Jerry hadn’t seen that pole before. Mac was running in circles at the limit of the chain. Jerry imagined the stencil kit he had as a kid, the one with plastic circles that you spun with a pencil to get shapes. He wanted to see a brown ring. He wanted Mac to destroy their lawn.
         Jerry slowed when he came on the house, stopping to take an unneeded drink of water and hold his two fingers to his neck like he knew what he meant. He smiled at Sue and Tim, who were sitting on the lawn calling to the dog.
        “Hey. Excuse me,” Jerry said. Sue looked up. He couldn’t tell if she remembered him.
        “Is that Mac? He used to be at the shelter in town?” Jerry said. Sue raised her eyebrow and tilted her head a little, trying to figure out, Jerry guessed, how he knew where Mac came from.
         Tim stood up and began to walk toward Jerry. Tim’s shoulders were loose, but his hands were bunched in fists.
         “I volunteer there,” Jerry said. “I talked to you, actually.” He put his hands up in front of him, showing them his palms.
         “His name is Peter now,” Sue said. “Prince Peter.” She was standing next to Tim, an arm’s length from Jerry. Prince Peter stopped running and trotted over. He pulled against the chain. He whined and pawed the air, his little head down.
         “Okay, Peter,” Jerry said. “I go for jogs and saw him—well I thought it was him—and I wanted to see how he was doing.”
         “He’s fine,” Tim said. His voice was cool, that first puff of refrigerator air on a hot day, without the pleasant feeling.
         Jerry stood there a moment. He had come to see Mac—not Prince Peter. He wanted to play with the pup. He wanted to flip Mac on his back and scratch his belly. He wanted to watch Mac’s leg twitch with pleasure. He didn’t want to stand around asking questions.
         As if on cue, Sue and Tim moved closer together, his arm hooking around her hips, closing off Jerry’s view of Mac.
         “Can I pet him?” Jerry said.
         “We have to be going. Prince Peter has obedience class soon,” Sue said.
         This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. They were supposed to let him in, let him play a few minutes with Mac and then kick him out.  Jerry stood looking at the couple. He could see static pulling strands of Sue’s hair up toward the sky. They stared at him. He stared at their hair. Tim coughed, his body rattling like a spirit had entered it.
         Jerry nodded and jogged back to his car. He called goodbye to Mac, waving like it meant something to the dog.
        “It’s Peter,” Sue said to Jerry’s back.
        Jerry kept running by their home. He only had to wait a few more days before seeing Mac again. Sue had him on a leash as he peed on one of the bears.
        “You’re back again,” Sue said when Jerry stopped to say hi. Sue pulled on the leash, coaxing the dog closer.
        “I said that I go for jogs,” Jerry said, a little too defensively.
        “So what about three months ago? Where were you then?” Sue said. She had her free hand on her hip.
        “I was on a different route,” Jerry said. It came out sounding more like a question, as if he, too, was skeptical. “I thought you just moved here, anyway.”
        “Sure,” Sue said. “A different route.” It amazed Jerry how level their voices stayed.
        “Yeah,” Jerry said, squatting down. “Come here, buddy.”
         Mac started to move, but was yanked back. He landed on his tail and skidded an inch or two.
         “What the hell?” Jerry said, standing back up.
         “I didn’t say you could touch him.”
         “All I want to do it pet him. I’m not going to try and have sex with him or anything,” Jerry said.
         “I didn’t say you could pet him,” Sue said. She had opened the screen door behind her and pushed Mac in with her foot. Jerry could hear Mac’s paws scratching the metal screen.
         “Why won’t you let me pet him?”
         “He’s our dog.  We don’t have to let anyone pet him.”
         Sue crossed her arms over her chest and straightened her spine. Jerry stopped for a moment to take in how her arms outlined her breasts, how she looked kind of attractive, how he might have tried to buy her a drink before closing on a Friday night. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to pull that off. He shook his head and took a step towards her.
         “Why the hell not? I knew him before you. I cleaned up his shit. I made sure he got exercise. I did everything for him. I never abandoned him.” Jerry waved his hands in her face as he spoke, but Sue didn’t flinch. She stared at him.
         “So?” Sue said.  “He’s ours now. We adopted him. We pay for him and feed him.”
         “So what?” Jerry was yelling now. Mac began to bark. He stood six inches from Sue and could see the pores on the bridge of her nose. He smelled citrus and baby powder. He could see freckles in a scatter plot across the top of her chest, which rose and fell quicker now.
         “Back up, kid,” she said. “Tim’s not here, but that doesn’t mean shit.”
         Jerry didn’t get it. He wanted to pet a dog. That was it. The most plain and suburban thing he could think of, but he wasn’t allowed. Why was it such a bad thing? If he couldn’t, what did it matter that he had been jogging every day for a chance? He wasn’t hurting anyone. Hell, , he was improving his own health in the process.
         “I just want to pet Mac,” he said, pulling each word into its own sentence.
         “His name is Peter.” Sue did the same thing.
         “I get what you’re saying, I really do, but it isn’t. It’s Mac. He was named Mac and his name should stay Mac. Are you as mean to him as you are to me?” Jerry took a breath. “Seriously, if you are, let me know so I can call the cops and send your ass to jail.”
         Jerry saw her open palm moving from her hip up to his cheek. He felt the burn followed by the warmth spread up to his eye and across his nose. Jerry felt a tear slide down his now-red cheek. He opened his eyes wide. Even his mother had never hit him.
         “Did you just slap me? Fucking seriously?”
         Sue was looking at her hand like she had never seen it before. Her mouth was moving, but no sound came out. Her eyes were the size of shot glasses.
         “I asked you a question,” Jerry said. He watched a stray bulb of spit land on her chin.
         “Hey,” Jerry said. “Hey.”
         Sue was looking at the ground. Jerry wanted an apology. He wanted her to say sorry and let him play with Mac. A slap was worth that much. She’d allow him to come by whenever he wanted. She would give Mac up to him. He needed her to say that, to say something. He thought about threatening to tell the shelter. He would be the hero, saving a dog from abuse. Maybe they’d give him some extra privileges.
         “Hey,” he said louder. Sue was still ignoring him as he saw his own hand moving up from where it hung. It seemed to be going too slow. These people didn’t deserve Mac. They were just going to leave him tied up and abandoned. Mac was supposed to get a second shot with a family who loved him—like Jerry did, because he understood. Mac, to them, was a showpiece, something to make them look like a complete family. How could you be a complete family if someone was on the road playing for a crappy baseball team all the time?
         Jerry’s hand was equal with his navel and he saw his palm turning over. The lines seemed as deep as gorges. He wanted to get lost in them. He imagined droplets of sweat filling those gorges, flooding them, taking him away, taking him west. Mac wouldn’t ever know what he could’ve had, and that killed Jerry. Jerry wouldn’t have visitation rights. He’d never get to see Mac again. Jerry’s hand was an inch away from Sue’s face when her eyes widened. Jerry wondered if his mother’s eyes ever widened like that..
         Then there was the sound, like a branch snapping, and it was done. Once, hard, before he fully processed it. He, too, was looking at his hand now.
         “Oh, God,” Jerry said, and began sputtering apologies, unable to step away.

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Sam Slaughter earned his BA in English and Anthropology from Elon University in 2009. Since then, he has held down a variety of jobs, but is currently at work on his MA-English degree at Stetson University in Deland, Florida. While at work on a thesis about alcohol and contemporary literature, he also brews both beer and mead with Persimmon Hollow Brewing Company.