A Local’s Guide to Dating in Slocomb County

By  |  June 5, 2015
Illustration by Tom Martin Illustration by Tom Martin

At half past ten the guy from the corner mart came into the shelter. Naomi had only seen him a few times, but he had a distinctive look, to say the least. He was young but rugged, with short-cropped hair and broad shoulders. It figured that the most attractive man in town her age was also a triple amputee. It was so hot out that even he was wearing shorts—red mesh ones with a faded Cola High School crest, below which were hi-tech black metal prosthetics inserted in grubby tennis shoes. He walked up to her and rested his elbows on the counter, and from that position looked normal, except for the one hand that was a carbon fiber hook.

“Morning, ma’am,” he said.

“Hi,” she said. “What can I help you with?”

“I’m here to pick up my dog. I talked to Dennis yesterday?”

“Okay, great. What’s your name?”

“Fisher Bray.”

“And what’s the animal’s name?”

“Barbie. She doesn’t have a collar or nothing. I take it off at night cause it itches her. She got out two nights ago and somebody brought her here I guess. Dennis said you got her.”

“I see. What kind of dog is she?”

“She’s a busted-looking Dutch shepherd. Dark brown and orange-ish. One ear missing. Big goofy smile.”

To calm a fever, Naomi’s mother had once forced her to take an ice bath. It sucked the air out of her lungs and made her skin burn. She felt like that now. The back of her neck prickled. She coughed.

“Okay,” she said. Her hands were trembling so she put them in her lap under the desk. “Give me a minute. Let me go in back and find Dennis, okay? I’ll just be a minute.”

“Thank you,” he said.

She walked to the staff room. Dennis and Portia were both there. Dennis was marking up a form on a clipboard and Portia was mixing tea. She saw Naomi’s face.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“A man is here to get his dog,” Naomi said.

“Great,” Dennis said. “I haven’t finished the list yet. That’ll help.”

“No,” she said. “He wants the shepherd with the missing ear.”

“With the limp?” Portia asked.

“Right,” Dennis said. “Yeah, that’s right, he called yesterday. What’s the problem?”

Naomi looked at Portia.

“Holy shit,” Portia said.

“You didn’t put it down,” Dennis said. “You put it down?”

Naomi left the staff room and walked to the kennel office. The lights were off to save electricity and the blinds had been drawn to keep out the heat, and the sun that got through was cut on the wall in long slivers. She opened the top drawer of the filing cabinet and found yesterday’s PTS log and roster. On the log, in her handwriting, in the eighth space: London, Shepherd mix, 92188. PTS’ed. On the printed roster, halfway down the third page: 92188 - intake - shepherd mix no ID. Penciled in to the right of the entry, in Dennis’s childish scrawl: Update, contacted by owner, DO NOT PTS.

But she had checked the roster against the log. Had she checked it? She always checked it, that was the system. The water cooler bubbled, a single thunk that sounded like a heavy stone dropped in a lake. It was hard to imagine that she wouldn’t have checked the roster, but she didn’t remember doing it yesterday, not specifically. She did remember what she did with the dog, and felt like she needed to throw up.

Back in the staff room, Portia was biting her nails and Dennis was stirring the instant tea.

“How did it happen?” Dennis said.

“I don’t know.”

“This is so fucked up,” Portia said.

“Shut up,” she said. “No, sorry. Let’s just think.”

There was nothing to think about. It had been ten minutes since she left the front desk, and Naomi had to go back. Fisher Bray was sitting in one of the chairs. He looked nervous, but smiled politely when she entered the room. Another woman was waiting at the counter, with a fluffy white cat in a hand carrier.

“I’ve been waiting here ten minutes,” she said.

“Someone will be right with you,” Naomi said, and turned to the man. “Will you come with me, sir?”

Portia took over at the front desk and Naomi showed him back to the kennel office where Dennis was waiting. She wanted to be anywhere else in the universe. She sat in a metal folding chair on the side of the room. He sat in the comfy chair. Dennis sat behind the desk and began by saying there was some unfortunate news. Barbie—that was her name?—had been put down. Tuesday had been a hectic day, and there had been some kind of miscommunication. With so many animals going in and out all the time, they relied on a set of lists, and somehow Barbie had been put on the wrong one. There were no words to express how sorry they were.

Naomi watched Fisher without breathing. He sat with his back straight, hand folded over hook in his lap. The sandy scruff on his cheeks softened the edge of a granite jaw line. He couldn’t be older than twenty-two. Dennis talked, and Fisher had no reaction whatsoever.

 

The numbers went like this: Slocomb County was home to a hundred and twenty thousand people. The Slocomb County Animal Shelter was the only freestanding shelter in five hundred square miles. The shelter had room to house around twenty cats and ninety dogs, and operated at capacity every day. Although it operated at capacity, there was a constant inflow of new cases. Strays, rescues, walk-ins—some days they got two dozen animals. On the other hand, outflow was sluggish. The last time Naomi had seen national estimates, six to eight million pets entered shelters every year. Three to four million were adopted out.

In addition to numbers there were rules. Most of their funding came from the county, and that came with strings attached. Their contract required that they take every animal that came through the door, plus keep a certain amount of kennel space for humane cases, plus cruelty seizure and bite cases that needed boarding while the courts decided what to do. State law required strays to be held for forty-eight hours. It was like musical chairs, except with two hundred rules, cages instead of chairs, and sodium pentobarbital for the losers.

The day before Fisher came in, she sat in the parking lot before work. The shelter was at the edge of town, on the side of the highway. A squat brick building with a gravel parking lot and a carved wooden sign. Behind it was a cotton field, black hickory tree line in the distance. She breathed slowly and checked the visor mirror. Usually she dressed in blouses and khakis but on Tuesdays, her day on PTS, it was t-shirt and jeans.

Inside the waiting room, Portia manned the front desk. She wore blue eye shadow and golden hoop earrings that would fit around a fire extinguisher. Her hair—jet black this month—was four inches shorter than it had been yesterday. She was removing and
reattaching a pen cap with her teeth, and spit it out to talk.

“Hey girl,” she said.

“Hey,” Naomi said. “New do?”

Portia slapped the pen down and leaned forward gravely.

“It broke off,” she said. “Broke. Off. I was like, okay, I guess it’s summer outside, I guess we’ll go short.”

“It doesn’t look bad.”

“I’ll make it work. Cut it into this shag thing. ‘Layered,’ let’s call it.”

Portia was in her early thirties, a Cola native who held three part-time jobs. Besides the shelter, she did hair at A Cut Above and tended bar at The De Soto. Her husband was a paralegal with an hour-long commute to Pine Bluff. She had confided in Naomi that she made enough at the bar to quit the other gigs, but the variety suited her. She liked dogs, hair, and beer; the system worked.

“Anyway.” She turned her mouth down and arched her eyebrows. “Ready for your Tuesday?”

“Sure,” Naomi said. “But it’s too hot.”

“Yeah. Dennis is in the staff room making the list. Let me know if you want to go drinking later.”

“Check.”

Dennis, their manager, was seated at one of the staff room’s plastic card tables, drinking coffee from a mason jar and glaring at a clipboard. He was in his fifties, tall and portly, with white, Martin Van Buren-style muttonchops and an endless supply of pale blue, short-sleeved button-down shirts.

“Morning,” Naomi said.

“Ah,” he said. “Morning to you.”

She put her lunch in the mini-fridge and poured a cup of coffee for herself, dumped in enough powdered hazelnut creamer to change the viscosity. She stirred and stepped behind him to read over his shoulder.

“Not too bad,” he said. “Probably just a half-day’s work, if you want to go at it like that.”

On the clipboard was a single sheet of paper, a simple black-and-white grid.

“Let me know if you need anything,” Dennis said.

She took a pencil and the clipboard to the kennel, a large, rectangular room with a smooth concrete floor and fluorescent lights. The two long walls were lined with tiled enclosures and chain-link gates. A half-wall in the room’s center served as a divider, so that the cages didn’t look directly into each other. Each cage had a number on a plastic card clipped to the gate.

The PTS list started as a page of blanks—Dennis’s calculations produced a number, and a corresponding number of empty spaces for recording the work. The number today was thirteen. Not counting walk-ins—and there were always some—Naomi needed to pick thirteen dogs to put down. She made a casual circuit around the room, considering. The boxer puppies had been there a week, but they were cute enough that she held out hope for adoption. They could spend the day in the staff bathroom—that freed one cage. The elderly gray terrier went on the list. Two mutts, a collie-looking one and another terrier type, went on the list. The well-behaved shepherd mix that had come off the street with old injuries, a bad limp and a missing ear, went on the list. The dachshund with cataracts, who slept all day and had not barked once, was a maybe. The fat cocker spaniel went on the list.

She still thought of it as training, or tried to. That had been the original plan: stay in Cola for a year, get experience at the shelter, then apply to vet schools, where she would need professional composure. Millions of pet owners declined to get their animals spayed or neutered; people were too poor, or lazy, or didn’t know better. She didn’t like that part of the job, but it was part of the job. Of course it was harder now to pretend she was only training. She had been at the shelter four years.

When all the blanks were filled she went to the kennel office, a closet with a computer and a landline, and spent the morning making useless phone calls. The breed rescues in Jackson and Shreveport were sympathetic, but unable to get anyone to Cola until later in the week. The no-kill rescue groups in El Dorado and Pine Bluff were overloaded. No room in shelters at neighboring counties or their neighboring counties. At a quarter to eleven, Dennis poked his head into the office.

“A guy just dropped off two cats,” he said.

“Did you tell him they won’t last the day?”

“Yep.”

“All right.”

“Good news is, there’s a young couple here, with a little kid, and they want a dog. I’m about to take them back.”

“The boxer puppies are in the bathroom.”

“Ah, good call. That’s our first stop.”

The kid liked the puppies but decided he wanted a snake. The mother refused, the father refused to have an opinion, and the family left arguing. Naomi added the cats to the list and worked out a schedule for the rest of the day. First, update her online dating profile. Second, eat lunch. Third, kill all the animals the shelter didn’t have room for.

Part one didn’t last long. There wasn’t much to add. Naomi Connelly, twenty-six years old, native of Bossier City, graduate of Centenary College. Interested in veterinary science and waterskiing. Likes sushi and Brad Paisley. Transplant to southeast Arkansas by way of a college boyfriend who had grown up in Cola and wanted to move back. That wasn’t in the profile. He had begged her to come with him, the shelter had liked her resume, and it seemed like a decent spot for a layover while she saved money for vet school. They rented a truck, signed a lease—in her name to help build credit, which she later learned didn’t work—and made the drive on a Saturday afternoon. Two months later he changed the plan. A Kappa Sig brother could get him in the door at a finance firm in Houston. It was too good to pass up. He loved her, he really did, but this was what he needed right now. They would be in touch. They never were.

And then, what? The job was pretty good, most parts of it. Rent was cheap. She could cover her student loans and still save a little, and living by herself was nice after four years of dorm life. She didn’t miss Bobby. She took drives on the weekends, but never back home, though it was only three hours away. She found a good tamale place. She read in the evenings. A year passed, then another.

She had five messages on the dating site. One from a man who had sent the exact same text a month ago, asking for a full-body shot, one an invitation for “no-strings-attached fun,” one from a sixty-year-old widower looking for a backgammon partner, and two from bots notifying her of totally free, no-hassle, super hot porn. She hated the Internet.

At noon she got her Tupperware out of the mini-fridge and mixed a pitcher of instant iced tea. Every communal fork was dirty, so she leaned against the counter and ate her Cobb salad with a spoon. Portia came in and used the microwave to heat her own lunch—a tub of macaroni and cheese with bacon bits mixed in. The smell was overpowering. She chewed with her mouth open.

“I’d like to be senile,” she said, “and get all my jobs confused. Get the animals drunk, cut barflies’ hair, and euthanize people at the salon.”

“There’s probably a legal defense for that,” Naomi said.

After lunch she stepped out for a short walk. It was seven thousand degrees outside. The cotton field behind the shelter was halfway into flowering, the dark bolls splitting around the cloudy blooms. In a month the strip picker would start lumbering down the rows, huge tires and green chassis and bright yellow teeth in front, thoughtless and methodical.

Tuesdays had never been easy and still weren’t. But there were the numbers, and the rules, and the necessity. She hadn’t cried about it this year, yet. Still the occasional nightmare, but they were less frequent. The way to do it was simply to do it, the quicker the better, and try not to think too much. So she stared across the cotton field until the back of her neck was burning, then she went back inside the shelter and through the waiting room and back to the kennel office.

She checked her list against the log and the roster, as she always did. Updates would have been obvious. She would have noticed any special instructions or changes to an animal’s status. Nothing jumped out at her.

In the kennel she took the quiet dachshund with cataracts out of its cage and led it to the room in back. She lifted it onto the metal table and went to the refrigerator. While she put on her gloves and filled the syringe, it sniffed around the edge of the table, looking for a place to jump down, but the table was too high so it sat and waited. She took its left front leg in her left hand, pushed her thumb down on the vein, slid in the needle and pushed the plunger. The dog got sleepy and lay down and was dead in forty-five seconds. She took a heavy-duty plastic garbage bag from the supply cabinet and rolled the dog into it, then carried it to the floor-to-ceiling freezer and put it on the middle shelf.

She did it over and over for three hours. When she took a break to drink more tea in the staff room, Portia and Dennis did not talk to her. An informal custom. After the break she put on new gloves and started again. All the cats went in one bag. The big dogs got their own bags, the smaller ones shared. Before she finished, the freezer became so crowded she had to shove to get the bags to fit, wedging the smaller animals in where she could. Twice she had to take some out and repack. Luckily, Dennis had scheduled a pickup for that evening, so however full the freezer got, it would be empty in the morning. Not that it mattered to her. On Wednesdays, she worked the desk.

 

The lights were on in the office but the blinds were still drawn. Naomi wanted to open them, to do anything to make this room feel bigger, but she didn’t want to move. Fisher sat quietly, without responding or batting an eyelid. Dennis kept talking.

“Sometimes dogs will have a chip,” he said. “But we didn’t find one on her. So that would’ve made us hold on to her, but she didn’t have one, our records show.”

Fisher smiled suddenly. Naomi’s stomach did a somersault.

“It was torn out,” he said. “She was injured in combat. Barbie’s a veteran.”

“A veteran,” Dennis said.

“Yes sir. First Battalion, 25th Infantry.”

They sat in silence. Gravel crunched under tires in the parking lot. The ceiling fan spun above them. A cartoonish ceramic owl sat on the desk. It was painted a dark blue and its eyes were wide and bright. Dennis turned it around in a circle.

“I see,” he said. “But you can imagine, we get a lot of strays. Lots of injuries you know, you see these dogs around. Without a chip, no collar, we can’t know.”

“But I called.”

“That’s true.” Dennis did not look at Naomi. “It’s very unfortunate. The lists are usually always cross-checked.”

Fisher nodded and looked at the window. The blinds were still closed. He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and looked up at the ceiling. Head tilted back, he laughed once through his nose. Dennis caught Naomi’s eye and bit his lip, but she ignored him. Fisher rubbed his face with his good hand, the hard jaw with neat, light-colored stubble. Then he laughed loudly. They sat quietly until his laughter subsided into giggles. When the giggles had passed, he sighed again, and apologized.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m going to go outside.”

“Okay,” Dennis said.

Naomi wondered if she should help, but Fisher stood easily, and walked to the door. She searched for something to say and came up with nothing. When he had left the room she looked at Dennis, whose mouth was hanging open.

“Is he coming back?” he said.

She didn’t answer. The water cooler burbled. Dennis left to check on Portia and Naomi walked to the window. It was unfair, of course. Was it monstrous? A mistake had been made, but the numbers all but guaranteed mistakes. The sheer numbers. Every system had its failings.

She raised the blinds and saw Fisher out in the cotton field, pacing slowly in the rows with that odd, robotic walk. The first time she’d seen him at the corner mart, she couldn’t help wondering how he dealt with the items on the low shelves. Slowly, she supposed, and there was nothing wrong with that. There were no clouds in sight and he used his t-shirt to wipe his forehead. He looked, she thought, like he could use some water. She filled a paper cup.

The heat was worse than advertised. The highway rippled in a mirage and when she reached the field the dirt cracked under her flats. He was facing the distant line of black hickory, shading his eyes with his hand. When she was ten feet away he turned. She had to squint with her entire face.

“You want some water?”

He came forward and took the cup, drank and handed it back.

“Appreciate it.”

“We really are sorry,” she said. It was not exactly like offering comfort, but what else was there?

He nodded and looked out to the trees.

“Where’s the body?” he said. “Can I see it?”

“No.”

“Where is it?”

“We have so little space,” she said. “And no money. We schedule pickups with freight coordinators. Reefer trucks will take the cargo for free, just stop on the way through town.”

“And go where?”

She took a breath. “Wherever they were already going. Lots of hub cities have rendering plants. The plants will buy remains.”

Fisher looked at her. He smiled once, broadly, then all expression left his face.

“Rendering plants,” he said, and looked off again. “A rendering plant.”

The smell of the cotton field had always reminded her of glue. Sweat dripped from under her arms and ran cold down her ribs. She put her arm up to shield her eyes and waited for words to come. When that arm grew tired she switched to the other.

“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “That takes the cake. And I know what I’m talking about. Not bragging or nothing. Just—I’ve seen bad, and this is a cherry.”

She followed his line of sight into the field, trying to imagine what he saw. Nothing but acres and acres of cash crop, hunched in the light, theoretically on its way to being useful. The cup in her hand was nearly full—he hadn’t taken more than a sip. She let a little water spill into the dust at her feet. The ground was so dry the water pooled instead of soaking in. It was hard to imagine anything worthwhile growing here.

“Beer?” she said.

“Oh yeah. Beer.”

“I’ll buy you one, I mean.”

He looked at her. For some reason he didn’t have to squint as much as she did.

“How’s that?” he said.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess this is wildly inappropriate. I’m just saying, I’m sorry what happened to your dog. I mean, Jesus—I’ll get you a beer. This isn’t protocol or anything. I understand if you’d rather burn us down.”

For the first time she saw despair on his face. A small change at the corners of his eyes. He looked down at his shoes. She wondered if his prosthetics absorbed the heat from the sun, if that was a concern.

“You mean The De Soto?” he said. The only bar in town.

“Sure.”

“Okay,” he said, and laughed. “I guess.”

He walked away from her, deeper into the field. She suddenly felt rude for watching, and marched back to the shelter. Portia gnawed on a pen cap at the desk. After the heat of the field the inside air froze her shoulders. The waiting room was empty.

“How did that go?” Portia asked.

“I don’t know,” Naomi said. “He’s not happy. Doesn’t really seem angry. Sad.”

“He’s not going to kill us?”

“I don’t think so.” She hesitated. “I’m going to get him a beer.”

“What, now?”

“Tonight. At the bar.”

“You’re kidding.”

“What are we supposed to do? ‘Sorry we killed your dog, bye.’ That can’t be it.”

“No, you’re right.” Portia tilted her head like a cat regarding strange human behavior. She raised one eyebrow. “Sure. Why not a beer. If he says okay.”

“He seemed okay.”

“I’m working the bar tonight, so you know.”

“I know.”

“In case he chops you up, is what I’m saying.”

“I know.”

Late in the afternoon, the family with the snake kid came back. The father, apparently, had been forced to take a position, and decided against reptiles. Naomi directed them to Dennis, who again showed them the available animals. Again they deliberated noisily and, again, left without adopting anything. When the door closed behind them, Portia mimed a gunshot to the head.

Naomi stayed after closing to go over the PTS list and roster. She sat at the desk and stared at the documents. Not that it made any difference now, but she hoped some memory might shake loose, and she could be assured that Dennis’s note hadn’t been there the first time she checked. But she couldn’t remember. And she hated Dennis, because although he was a goofy old man with ridiculous sideburns, between the two of them she was more likely to make a mistake.

At home she took a long shower, and afterward laid out a few tops on her bed. She tried them on and narrowed the choices to a green halter that tied at the neck, and a simple black v-neck. She considered appropriateness, comfort level, and whether or not she was going insane.

 

When Fisher Bray was six, his father, a roofer, moved the family to Cola to take advantage of what would turn out to be a very brief construction boom. He was sad to leave the house in Lake Village, because the dryer on its back in the side yard made an excellent racecar, when his sisters weren’t using it as their bakeshop oven. Cola was hot and flat, and though the new side yard had a beech stump good for holding BB gun targets, it was a poor replacement for the dryer.

In middle school, his mother encouraged him to go out for football as a way to make friends. He played offense and defense, as there were seventeen total players on the team. In two years they won three games. He did make friends, and his house became a popular sleepover destination, at least partially because of the two high school girls who also lived there.

That lasted until his father’s fourth and final back injury, the result of another, minor, twelve-foot fall. His father sold the work truck and went on disability, and became an affable but spooky presence around the house—the pain meds made him foggy, and he spent the majority of his time sitting in the recliner in the living room, watching the TV whether it was on or not. Fisher stopped inviting his friends over. His mother started work as a gas station attendant to help with the finances. She was qualified for more, but managed her income carefully—a thousand dollars too much would change the family’s benefits category, and her husband’s medication would cost ten thousand more a year.

In high school Fisher discovered metal and weed. He shot up to five-eleven and let his hair grow into a long ponytail that he tied with rubber bands. He was a mellow, straight-C student, not because better grades were impossible, but because Cs took basically no effort. The girls graduated when he was a sophomore and moved to the capital together, to attend culinary school. Having two fewer dependents did restructure the family’s benefits categorization, so Mr. Bray switched from a battery of prescriptions to over-the-counter cocktails. His fog dissipated somewhat and was replaced by pain and anger. He started stealing Fisher’s pot, and their fights got progressively uglier until Mrs. Bray intervened, and designated Fisher as the official buyer for his father. She had recently found that four years at the One Stop had lowered her earning potential to the status quo.

His senior year, Fisher attended the Slocomb County High School career fair. He talked to a bait shop owner, a welder, a newspaper ad salesman, a pig farmer, a rice farmer, and a soybean farmer. The rice farmer in particular radiated disappointment, and Fisher, looking at the man’s gnarled hands and hangdog face, felt the future closing around him like a fist. Then, in the corner of the convention hall, he was waylaid in his attempt to get a free keychain and ended up talking to an Army staff sergeant for half an hour. The sergeant had perfect teeth, a maroon beret, and a fine white scar on his temple, which he said he got rappelling. He was only six years older than Fisher, but from some other world where people wore polished shoes and knew how to break necks. He had been to thirteen countries. They looked over some forms, just to get an idea. Fisher agreed to take the ASVAB, to see what he might qualify for.

He left for Fort Benning three days after graduation. His mother cried and said she could not be more proud. His father asked where he would get his pot from. His sisters, by phone, said he was an idiot and was going to get killed. On his first plane ride, he was surprised to see how little of the earth was covered by human things.

Basic Training was a shock, mostly because of the routine. He shaved at four-forty every morning, and went to bed so tired he didn’t roll over in his sleep for ten weeks. After Basic he stayed in Georgia for Advanced Individual Training—just another four weeks for infantrymen. He was fit, disciplined, and happy. In October, Private Bray crossed the Atlantic on a C—40 Clipper. It was the first time he had seen the ocean. He celebrated his nineteenth birthday a month later, at Forward Operating Base Sykes in dry, dusty, empty Tal Afar. An engineer he knew from training knew a corporal with an acoustic guitar, and someone brought Oreos into the barracks. It was his best birthday since childhood.

Two weeks passed slowly. Companies were being cycled in and out of Mosul, where the fighting was apparently heavy. Fisher’s company waited for its first rotation. Part of him was afraid, of course, but he was also confident and excited. He had skills and wanted to use them. No one back home had ever done anything like this.

His two best friends in the unit were Specialist Leonard Ramos, a dog handler, and Leonard’s Dutch shepherd, Barbie. Leonard was short, plump, and intensely religious. He and Fisher bonded over a mutual love for Megadeth. Barbie was sleek and lean, with giant upstanding ears, a brownish-orangey coat, and a floppy pink tongue that felt like used sandpaper. Fisher had always wanted a dog, but his father was the one man in Cola who wouldn’t allow it. He and Barbie got along so well that Leonard let Fisher throw the tennis ball with her, though playtime was usually reserved for the handler. While the dog fetched, the men talked about combat. They were terrified and eager.

Their opportunity came in December. The company drove to Mosul in a convoy and initiated police operations in an outer district. Fisher’s platoon was in charge of a guard post at an apparently important intersection, a square of brown dirt between four identical stone buildings. They could hear artillery in other parts of the city, but for three days the intersection itself was relatively sedate. Fisher helped man the guard station that checked passing vehicles. Leonard walked Barbie around tires and bumpers, let her sniff compartments and passengers.

One Tuesday the traffic was heavier than normal, and a line formed at the gate. The drivers—Iraqi citizens, other American soldiers, other coalition forces—were irritable and surly. It was early evening and the light was failing. The shadows in the square lengthened and grew darker. The sky glowed a soft purple. Fisher was trying to get through his checklist with a French journalist when he heard barking. He looked up, but it was difficult to see in the increasing gloom. A man was in the square, a dozen meters away. The man was running toward the guard station. Barbie was barking at him. Leonard let go of her and she ran at him. The man saw the dog coming and stopped, and then Fisher’s ears blew out and everything in his vision smeared together.

When his eyesight came back, a thick cloud of dust hung in the air, and he was lying on the ground next to the journalist’s car. He tried to push himself into a sitting position, but failed because his left hand was gone. He gasped and looked away. It must have been a mistake, because he could still feel the hand, still feel the fingers moving. He looked again but it remained absent. Strange—he would have to figure that out later. Right now he needed to get moving. He tried to stand using only his feet, but that proved impossible, because they were gone too. He screamed, and someone touched his shoulder. It was the French journalist, leaning down from the open car door. His face was bloody but he had all his limbs. He was saying something, probably something important, but Fisher didn’t speak French, so he closed his eyes and lay back. He was confused and needed a nap.

Fisher had nine surgeries in Germany. In two months he was aware enough to ask questions and remember the answers, and he learned that Leonard had taken shrapnel through the brain stem. Barbie had survived, and was actually being treated at a veterinary clinic a few miles away. He got phone calls from his family, parents solemn and sisters hysterical. In March he underwent another round of surgery. Whenever he was lucid he made phone calls to administrators at the veterinary clinic. Barbie was getting a medical discharge. Fisher wanted her. The strings were easy to pull.

They did their rehab together at the VA in Birmingham. Barbie had lost an ear and gained a permanent limp, but Fisher’s pace wasn’t exactly challenging. He did pool therapy and the parallel bars to build strength, and was finally able to use the prosthetics without aid. His walk was slow and ungainly, but after eleven months without standing, it felt like a miracle to look at the world from his original height.

His sisters drove down from Little Rock to bring him back to Cola. They made a hundred chocolates stamped with a profile of George Washington, the same as his Purple Heart. They brought a three-foot novelty dog bone for Barbie. When they reached home, his father surprised Fisher by sobbing openly, then laughing and asking which of them was the gimpiest now. His mother kept a stern frown and didn’t look at his legs.

He got a small apartment in the downtown area, with a tiny concrete patio and a small backyard where Barbie could drink out of the sprinkler. He went to physical therapy twice a week and the psychologist once. After a few months he got a part-time job at the corner mart, stocking shelves. He read in the evenings and barbecued on weekends, usually just him and the dog. He didn’t mind the solitude. He knew he was processing, and the doctor said he was doing well.

In July his air conditioner broke, so he left the windows and back door open at night. One morning Barbie wasn’t there. She had gotten out before—the latch on the backyard gate was pitiful—but he usually found her sniffing snake holes in the dirt alley just behind the property. He paced the length of the alley but didn’t see her, walked a circuit around downtown and couldn’t find her. He knocked on his neighbors’ doors and asked, then called his parents for some reason. No one could help. He sat at his kitchen table and tried not to panic. All the walking had exhausted him. The shelter—he would call the shelter.

Someone named Dennis answered, and Fisher described Barbie, trying to keep the agitation out of his voice. Sure enough, a dog matching that description had been brought in. She was happily waiting for him to come collect her. Fisher put down the phone and choked once. He had not realized how worried he’d been. He rubbed his eyes and asked Dennis if they could keep her until the next day, when he could borrow a car from his mother. That, he was told, would be no problem.

 

For the second time that day, Naomi waited for the right response to occur to her. On the other side of the booth, Fisher pulled from his beer and looked up at the crossbeam that traversed the bar’s interior, the crusty license plates nailed onto the black lacquer. She had chosen the green halter, and was glad—the paper streamers taped to the vent of the window a/c unit barely floated, and the condensation on her bottle was so thick that the label slipped off in her hand the second time she raised it. The three other patrons sat at the bar watching baseball on a ceiling mounted tube television. Portia cut lime wedges, as if someone might order something that required them. Naomi wrapped the sodden label around her beer again.

“Did she get a medal, too?” she asked. “Like yours?”

“No,” he said. “Dogs aren’t eligible for military awards.”

“You were right about taking the cake. The cherry.”

“Like I said, not trying to brag.”

He wore a faded maroon polo with the same mesh shorts, sat with his hand on the table and his other arm in his lap. There was a wry expression on his face when he looked at the tacky crossbeam, at the door when it swung to admit another lonely sixty-year-old in overalls, at the saltshaker made from an old hot sauce bottle. But when he directed his gaze at her, it was genuine. Open and even kind. She avoided it.

“I feel like … like saying ‘sorry’ would be an insult. A joke. Like there’s not really anything for me to do. Besides go to prison, or get strung up by the thumbs or something. I don’t know.”

He kneaded the place on his forearm where the prosthesis attached, just below the elbow joint. A strap looped around the upper part of his arm, and he undid and adjusted the Velcro before speaking again.

“You know why this place is called The De Soto?”

She shook her head, worried that now he would think she was the incurious type, who never wondered why anything was called anything. Why hadn’t she wondered that?

“It’s after Hernando de Soto,” he said. “He’s buried in the lake here. Supposedly. You know Lake Chicot, right over that way? His men sank the body so Indians wouldn’t know he wasn’t a god. Native Americans.”

“You do what you got to do,” she said. “Was he the guy looking for the Fountain of Youth?”

“Just gold, I think.”

A man entered the bar, a leathery skeleton of indeterminate age in camouflage cargo shorts. He nodded at Fisher, who nodded back. He took a stool near the TV and Portia grinned and said, “Look at this old rustler, I thought you died.” The air conditioner wheezed and sputtered.

“That guy used to work at the corner store,” Fisher said. “He got fired for stealing porno mags.”

“You do what you got to do,” she said.

He laughed and cracked his neck. She was glad to make him laugh.

“Anyway,” he said. “What exactly are we doing here?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, it’s pretty weird circumstances.”

“Right.”

“But it feels like a date.”

“Uh,” she said.

“So I’m thinking, how all does this work? Am I trying to score a pity date from the cute woman who put my dog down?”

“It’s not a pity date.”

“Is it a date?”

“I don’t know.”

She wanted to look around the bar, in case there was a life preserver in reach, or a convenient method of suicide. But she was afraid to break eye contact with him. His elbows were posted on the edge of the table. He looked at her and didn’t speak.

“This is just, I’m getting you a beer,” she said. “Like people do when something happens. I know it’s stupid and inadequate. If I was you I’d want to kill me. But you seem nice and I feel like shit. So I guess this is a pity party for me.”

“Right,” he said. “That’s about right.”

“Right,” she said. Her stomach twisted into surgical knots. “And I hoped you’d like this shirt, I guess.”

He sat back and finished his beer.

“Do you want another one?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said. “I’ll get it.”

“I’ll get it.”

As soon as he turned his back, she took a napkin from the dispenser and wiped her eyes. The window across from her was too dusty to provide a reflection, but the napkin came away clear of makeup. At the bar, Portia was doing a crossword, and Fisher waited patiently until she noticed him. He carried the bottles back to the table in his right hand, and behind his back Portia watched and gave Naomi a questioning eyebrow, her thumb held sideways on the bar. Naomi smiled at her.

“I asked her to leave the caps on,” he said.

Still standing with both bottles gripped, he positioned the caps against each other. A quick slam downward sent the upper cap flying. He pushed the open beer toward her and sat down.

“One,” he said. “I don’t want to kill you. Two, my best friend was a dog, sad as that is, and she died yesterday, so I’m a little down. And I don’t blame you, or at least I can tell that I’m not going to, but I do have complicated feelings about it at the moment. Three, I do like that shirt. Can you open this?”

She opened the other beer for him. It foamed over and spilled.

“That’s okay,” he said. “Four. If you’re getting a pity party, I don’t want a pity date. I want to get pity laid.”

He sipped. His mouth was cast iron and his eyes retained the sadness she’d seen in the cotton field. She waited for a grin, a tell that would alert her to the joke. After three beats she knew it wasn’t coming.

“One,” she said. “I’m glad you don’t blame me. I think it’s because you know that I know what a fuckup this is, and you’re kind, and you know that I’ll still torture myself. Two, I also picked this shirt because it’s hot as hell everywhere in this damn town, but I’m glad you like it.”

He raised his bottle to her.

“Three, nobody’s getting ‘pity laid.’ Not by me. Not even if your other hand and your head got blown off in Iraq.”

His face didn’t change. He nodded his head minutely.

“Four. This is a date, if you want. That’s basically insane considering how we got here, but you’re probably the most eligible bachelor in town, God help us.”

“Okay,” he said. He laughed.

They talked about the boringness and pleasantness of baseball. They talked about war movies, good ones and bad ones. They tried to remember the name of the Fountain of Youth guy but failed. The old men left one by one until they were alone with the bartender, and Portia brought over gin and tonics on the house, heavily garnished with lime wedges. Fisher recognized her from the shelter. He patted her arm and proposed a toast to Barbie, which he slurred slightly. Naomi supposed that a diminished body weight would increase the effect of alcohol. He apologized after spilling gin on his shirt. Portia laughed at him and left to get a rag. Fisher excused himself to go to the bathroom.

Naomi got up and propped the front door open with a cinder block. Full dark had fallen and she put the air temperature at a brisk eighty-two. She stood in the blinking neon of the window sign and had grand thoughts about how so few things in the world happened the way you expected. Those kinds of thoughts meant she was tipsy enough now to have a headache in the morning. She re-entered the bar in time to see Fisher spit a chewed lime wedge back into his glass.

They took her car. In four minutes they reached his apartment, which was modest but clean, with tan carpet and new paint. A breakfast bar separated the living room from the kitchen, and he walked behind it and opened a cabinet. She sat on a corduroy sofa beneath a framed print of that Japanese woodcut where the huge waves are about to swamp the little boat.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said. He set a bottle of bourbon on the counter. “I’m just going to make sure I’m drunk.”

“Your house,” she said. “Your rules.”

“Want one?”

“Yes.”

When they got to the bedroom she told herself that sex was always strange, between any two humans, anywhere on earth. She waited on top of the covers while he removed his prosthetics at the edge of the bed. Although it was too dark to see—he had made sure—she closed her eyes. After a moment she felt his weight settle next to her, then his fingertips on her clavicle.

“Do I,” she said. She put her hands on her knees to stop them from shaking. “I mean, I’ve never, you know. Just tell me what to do.”

“How should I know?” he said. “I don’t know either. Should be basically the same, I think. More or less.”

It was, more or less. She stayed on top, which seemed easiest, and after a few minutes her biggest worry was the heat.

“Sorry I’m sweating so much,” she said.

“It’s okay.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I heard you.”

After he came they held each other for a spell, then he rolled away and fell asleep. She watched the digits change on the bedside clock, listened to cars going by on the street outside, and tried to ignore all the different parts of her brain that wanted to make pronouncements on her character, or lack thereof, her future, or lack thereof, and the mysteries of the world in general. The strain or the alcohol finally produced a throbbing headache, and after an hour spent lying awake she slipped from bed and inched through the dark, thinking of water.

In the living room she found the edge of the breakfast counter and circled around it onto the kitchen tile. Without any idea where a light switch might be, she opened the refrigerator, and fluorescent light washed over the cabinets. The cool air felt good on her skin, and the light reached into the far corner where a blue dog bowl sat almost empty. It occurred to her to make a gesture. Though the refrigerator was nearly desolate it did have a filtered water pitcher on the top shelf, and she took it out. The bowl was too far to reach, so she leaned across the kitchen, one hand holding the door open to keep the light on, the other straining to extend the pitcher as far as she could. Her arm shook. She tilted the spout toward the bowl. The water came out in a smooth stream that sparkled in the light, splashed off the lip, and spilled onto the floor.


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Chris Drangle recently taught creative writing at Cornell University, and is a recipient of the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. A native of Arkansas, he now lives in the Bay Area.