Sunday Jul 12

Bledsoe CL Bledsoe's latest poetry collection is Trashcans in Love. His latest novel is The Funny Thing About... He lives in northern Virginia with his daughter and blogs with Michael Gushue here.
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Woman’s Best Friend

I did another once-over of the townhouse in case I’d missed something. I’d hired Maid to Clean—even though I think that might be the most demeaning business name I’ve ever heard. They’d done a good job, but I worried if it was good enough.

Someone was knocking on the door. If I hid, they’d never know. I could change my number. Change my email. Move.

The knocking grew insistent. Or maybe it was in my imagination. I sucked a deep breath in and opened the door.

An older lady was standing there, dowdy in the way of someone who truly didn’t care about their appearance. She gave me the briefest hint of a smile that made no effort not to be fake.

      “You must be Kim.” She offered a limp hand. It was like shaking hands with a moist towelette that had been left in the car. “ Celia, ” she added. “We corresponded.”

      “Yeah,” I said. “ I ’m so happy to meet you.” This was a lie.

      I waved her through to the living room while the others followed her in. They all looked similar: stern faces on weak bone structures.

      “This is the living room,” I said. “She’ll have a day bed in here.” It was a joke, but Celia nodded as though it were a normal thing to say. I made a mental note to get a dog day bed.

      “Let me give you a tour,” I said.

      “That won’t be necessary,” Celia said. “We prefer to see the home in a natural state, free from interference.” That fake millisecond smile again.

      “Can I, um, get anyone anything?”

      “Please don’ t interfere, ” Celia said. 

*          *          *

I stood in the kitchen in case anyone wanted anything. They ranged across the house. I could hear opening drawers and stomping around upstairs. As they moved from room to room, they muttered and wrote things down.

I felt like a trespasser in my own house, so I decided to go downstairs. One of them was down there. The screen door was open to the back yard. I went out.

A man —the only male of the group—had a little wheel thing with a handle. He rolled it across the yard, I guess measuring it. He shook his head and then saw me watching and looked away. I went back upstairs.

*          *          *

Two hours after they’d arrived, the committee gathered in my living room. They had apparently already conferred, though a couple whispered things to each other. They all looked so stern.

Celia motioned for me to sit down with them.

      “Unfortunately, we can’t allow you to adopt Mr. Smiggles,” she said.

I grinned, thinking it was a joke, but no one else was grinning.

      “What?” I asked. “Why not?”

The man cleared his throat. I had flashbacks of every boy in school talking over me.

      “Your yard is three feet square too small for a dog this size,” he said.

I blinked. “It’s not that small,” I said. “It’ s fine.

      “Not according to the latest issue of Dog Outdoors , ” he said.

I shook my head. “ I ’ll take him for walks,” I said.

      “While you’re at work?” Celia flipped through what I assumed must be my file. “Eight hours a day?” She made a tsk noise. “ We ’d really prefer someone who could spend more time with Mr. Smiggles.”

     “Well, I have to work.” I laughed, but no one joined me.

Celia didn’t respond except to adopt a sympathetic look that was even faker than her smile.

      “When was the last time you had your kitchen updated?” The man asked.

      “Not since I moved in,” I said. He looked like he‘d stepped in something. “ I ’ve only been here two years.”

He shook his head. I felt my face flush.

Another woman stepped up. “On your application, you made no mention of education opportunities.”

      “I said I’d get obedience training if the dog needs it?”

      “Yes,” the woman said. “But what about Mr. Smiggles’ intellectual growth?”

      I …” I had no idea what to say. “Like night classes? Look, I’ve had dogs all my life. I know how to…do it.”

Awkward silence settled over the room until Celia stepped up and offered her hand.

     “Thank you for considering Fairfax City Animal Adoption League,” Celia said. Her hand was still out, so I took it. The others turned and made their way out of my house. I could hear some of them laughing as they climbed into their Mercedes Benzes and Lexuses. I closed the door behind them and went and sank to the floor. 

*          *          *

      “So, how’s the new dog?” Carol asked. She was the closest thing I had to a friend at work. Mostly, she complained and I smiled and nodded.

      “They’re very selective,” she said, when I told her what happened.

      “I just can’t believe they chose death for the dog over me,” I said.

      “Well,” Carol said clearly at a loss. “That’ s...it ’s very selective. Was there a fee?”

      “Yeah.” I gave her a tight smile to show it was okay she wasn’t better at making me feel better.

      “You can always try again,” she said.

      “Yeah, but they ask if you’ve ever been rejected before. Now I have.”

      “My nephew has ferrets,” Carol said. “They smell terrible.”

*          *          *

On lunch, I went and sat in a bathroom stall and deleted the picture of Mr. Smiggles I’d had in my phone for the last week. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. That’s not true, but that’s how it felt.

Over the next few days, I focused on work. The hours I’d spent perusing pet adoption websites were now replaced with shoe shopping. That lasted about two days before I found myself perusing the pet adoption website.

Mr. Smiggles ’ picture was still up. I imagined scenarios where I re-applied under a different name or tracked them down to argue my case. I went so far as to compile what personal information I could find and get some addresses.

A week passed. They still hadn’t taken Mr. Smiggles’ picture down. I searched for the location of the adoption league on Google Maps. Two more days passed before I drove out to Fairfax City on my lunch break.

I expected to find a shelter, but instead, the directions led to a house. It wasn’t marked like a business, and it was in the middle of a neighborhood. I drove back to finish work.

*          *          *

Over the next few days, I compiled as much information as I could. On a hunch, I did Google Image Searches of the pets listed. Mr. Smiggles’s photo had come from the website of an adoption place in Utah. When I called from the bathroom stall, they told me he’d been dead for two months. I cried for a long time over that until someone in another stall asked if I was okay.

*          *          *

I called in to work the next day and spent most of it reading and pretending the outside world didn’t exist. When the morning rolled around, I called in again and went back to bed, even though I’d slept about twelve hours. The day after that, I woke up energized, full of schemes for justice.

The plan I came up with was that I would dress up like a city worker and go to the house to scout it out. I couldn’t decide which. Maybe the power company. Or gas. But I didn’t know if they had gas. I could try to hack the gas company, but I wasn’t sure I was up to that level of commitment just yet. Also, I probably couldn’t do that. So, I went with power. I ordered a costume from Etsy based on photos I found online of Dominion Power uniform. It was made with locally sourced, organic cotton. Local to wherever the woman who made it lived.

It took two weeks for the uniform to come, and then another day for me to open the package. I left it lying on the box in my living room for another day before I tried it on. 

*          *          *

I dyed my hair and put on a fake mustache. It made me giggle so much I had to take it off, though. I tied my hair up and put it under a cap instead. I took the mustache, but whenever I tried to put it on at red lights, I couldn’t stop laughing.

I hadn’t done anything to disguise my car, so I parked it a little down the block and walked to the door. I looked pretty good. I had even taken the uniform outside and rubbed it in the grass and dirt a bit to make it look authentic.

When I said house, that was a bit of an understatement. This was a mansion. Not a multi-wing mansion like on TV, but a massive house that must’ve been worth millions. It seemed old.

Celia answered on the third knock. There was no glimmer of recognition on her face.

      “Dominion Power,” I said. My voice sounded ridiculous. I was trying to make it an octave lower to sound more manly, but it was so fakey. “I need to check the relay.”

      “I thought the power box was outside,” she said.

      “Power leak,” I said. I had a stud finder I hoped she wouldn’t recognize. I was really glad I hadn’t worn the mustache. “I need to find it quick.”

She sighed and looked around.

      Can ’t you come back?” she asked.

      No ma am, ” I said. “It will only take a minute.”

She stepped aside and let me in.

      “Any pets I should know about?” I asked as I closed the door behind me. I had to struggle to keep the anger out of my voice. But Celia had already disappeared into the house. That was the thing about people like her; a working person was invisible. 

*          *          *

The inside of the house smelled like some kind of fried meat. It was familiar, and I realized I’d smelled it when the committee had come to my townhouse. Maybe it was Celia’s personal smell, or maybe it was all of their smells blended together. The center of the carpet was a different shade than closer to the wall. I rubbed some by the wall with my foot and realized it was dust. The walls were dusty, also. Cobwebs fluttered in the corners. I came into a kitchen, and the counters were stacked with mail, magazines, trash. More dust covered that. One tiny space in the middle wasn’t covered.

      “My place wasn’t good enough?” I said and clapped my hand over my mouth.

I could hear voices from one part of the house. I had this idea that there might be animals in cages in a basement or something, that they might even be using animals for some kind of experimentation. When I was twelve, I read Watership Down and then The Plague Dogs and I guess you could say they shaped my perspective.

I went room to room, but I couldn’t find anything indicating medical experimentation. I even went upstairs to Celia’s bedroom. It smelled like mildew. The sheets on her bed were a dingy yellowish color. I wondered when they’d last been washed, or if they ever had. There was trash and junk everywhere, empty plates on part of the bed. It was just pathetic.

When I went back downstairs, the voices were really getting raucous. I snuck closer. A man’s voice was the loudest. I recognized him as the one who’d said my yard was too small. There were other voices—the woman who’d asked about Mr. Smiggles’ educational goals and opportunities.

      “What about this one?” The man read in an exaggerated feminine voice. “’My daughter needs a best friend. She fell in love with Mr. Smiggles the first time she saw him.’”

The other voices laughed in response. I curled my fingers into a fist.

      “Maybe if your kid wasn’t a loser, it would have some real friends,” a woman’s voice said. The others laughed.

Another voice I couldn’t quite hear made another joke.

I peeked around a corner. The whole organization was there, on old furniture that may have been antique or might’ve just been old junk. There were piles of paper beside each of them—applications, I guess. Everyone was sipping drinks I assume were alcoholic and eating little cookies on plates. They looked like if Mr. Burns had kids. Any moment, I expected one of them to say, “Release the Hounds.” I had to cover my mouth again to stop the nervous giggling.

      “What about this one?” Celia said. “’ I ’m a retiree looking for love.’” She burst out laughing.

      “That’s not funny,” I said, stepping into the room.

      “Are you still here?” Celia asked. “Haven’t you found the leak yet?”

      Leak? ” the man said.

      He ’s with the power company.” Celia waved me away.

I took my hat off and shook my hair out, except it was kind of sweaty after being under the hat for so long. So, I splayed it out to show it was long.

      “Oh,” Celia said. “Are you… female? I ’m not up with the pronouns.”

      No, ” I said. “Well yes, and it’s not that hard to…” I stopped myself. “You don’t remember me?” The confused faces showed that clearly none of them did. “I applied for a dog, and you did a home inspection a few weeks ago.”

      “We do a lot of home inspections,” the man said.

     “The fee is non-refundable,” Celia said.

      “You’re trespassing,” the man said. “Unless you really work for the power company.”

      “Do you?” Celia asked.

It was like herding cats with these people. “I looked at your website. Most of the pictures on there are from other websites. You don’t actually have any pets for adoption, do you?”

The man and Celia exchanged meaningful looks. The other committee members were all quiet, but all eyes were on me. I was glad I was still standing in the doorway so I could run if I had to.

      “I would have to talk to the web manager to see how recently the pictures on the site have been updated,” Celia said.

I shook my head. “You’ve all been in here making fun of applicants.” I dug my phone out of my pocket. “I have proof.” This was a lie. I hadn’t actually thought to record them until just that moment.

      “Did you record us?” the man asked. “You don’t have permission to do that. That’s breaking and entering and invasion of privacy.”

      “I didn’t break and enter. Celia let me in.” I almost backtracked and said I didn’t film them either. I did start filming then, though.

      “The jig is up,” I said, then I giggled a little.

      “Maybe we can work something out,” another woman said.

I looked from her to Celia. “I just wanted a dog, but you ruined that,” I said.

      “Here’s a thousand dollars.” Celia had her purse out and counted out ten hundred dollar bills and offered them to me. “Just walk away.”

I tore my eyes away from the money. “So, what, you get the application fees and deposits and never actually give anyone a dog?” I said. “And people just let it happen?”

      “It’s a very competitive world, pet ownership,” the man said. “No one wants to risk being blacklisted.”

I shook my head, but I was still mostly looking at the money.

      “A thousand dollars would get you a really nice dog from a breeder,” Celia said. “Or whatever else you want.”

      “But what about the dogs?” I asked. “All these people would be rescuing dogs, but they’re not because of you.”

      “They can always go to the pound,” Celia said.

      Listen, ” the man said. “What are your options, here? You going to call the cops? You got in here under false pretenses, so none of your evidence will be admissible to court.”

      “What are you, a lawyer?” I asked.

      “Yes,” he said. “We all are.”

      Oh. ” I felt my face redden.

      “You’ve got some pictures on a website that we can take down at a moment’s notice. That’s it. Take the money. Walk away. What do you think the cops are going to do?”

I walked over to the bar and got a glass and a bottle and poured some of the liquid into it and took a drink. I don’t know what it was, but it tasted terrible. I coughed as I swallowed. Then I turned and looked at them all. They all had smug grins. These are people that never lose.

      “$2000,” I said.

Celia grinned wider. “ Okay. ” She counted out another thousand. I walked over and snatched it from her hand then walked out. 

*          *          *

Back in my car, I almost threw up whatever liquor I’d drunk. I watched the front of the house for several minutes. I was afraid they’d try to turn the tables and say I’d broken in and extorted money. No police came. I waited twenty minutes until I was calm, then I drove home.            

*          *          *

I put the money in an envelope in a cabinet in the kitchen, thinking I’d use it to start a civil suit or maybe travel somewhere. A couple days later, I went to a pound and got a nice little mutt puppy named Delilah. She was kind of high maintenance, but that was okay. I needed something to maintain in my life.