After a year of hesitation I’ve decided to tell you about the dog. I mean, I’m going to tell you about the picture of the dog and then we can discuss the actual dog if you want. Maybe you don’t want talk about the dog because it’s our dog, and that’s that. I remember the picture of the dog was sealed in a Ziploc bag affixed to a telephone pole at the corner of Courtelyou and Coney Island Ave. The dog’s name was SAMANTHA and there’s a phone number and a human’s name underneath her crude black and white photo. I did not take down this phone number or take a photo of the picture of the dog. According to the photo, Samantha does not have any physically outstanding attributes. Samantha appears to be the kind of dog that farts in her sleep and snores and dreams peaceful little dreams. She is stupidly happy; I have never understood this sort of happiness. The telephone pole is three blocks from your studio apartment. We’ve discussed how the corner of Courtelyou and Coney Island Ave has “bad energy”, which reminds us of the time we witnessed an unsupervised baby on the sidewalk crawling toward traffic. This terrified us. We ran over and grabbed the baby. We didn’t know what to do with it. We glanced around to see if anyone was missing one. There was a man smoking outside the bodega and he looked at us then he looked at the baby. After a few minutes, a woman emerged from an apartment vestibule. The man looked at the woman, disapproving. We returned the baby. The man lambasted the woman’s neglectful ways. The woman did not seem concerned about what had happened, as if it were not her baby, or anyone’s baby. That made us sad. As I explain to you under what circumstances I encountered the picture of the dog (our dog), my thoughts turn toward my memory of the baby crawling into traffic. We used to live happily near that corner.
You find it strange and eccentric that I posses only a single photo from my childhood. In this photo I am wearing a gray jumpsuit and a motorcycle helmet. Thirty years ago in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, I told my parents I wanted to be an astronaut for Halloween. It took my mom a week to sew a gray spacesuit out of scraps of polyester. In addition to the spacesuit, she said I could wear my father’s motorcycle helmet, which she promised would be “really convincing and sleek”. All week I begged my mom to let my younger brother and me go out alone, and after some debate, she agreed for once. She was a religious woman and did not allow us to watch movies or televisions shows with nudity or “traces of sex”, like a man leaving a woman’s house in the morning, so permitting us to go out on our own was special, a new frontier. I rejoiced! That night, as my brother (a ghost in a flower-patterned bed sheet with dark creeping vines) and I roved up and down the hills of Wexford amongst all of the clusters of Caucasian children and adults, I did not feel like myself. The motorcycle helmet weighed five pounds and was suitable for an adult-sized skull not a child’s. I was sweating profusely in my polyester spacesuit, which caused the helmet to fog up. For most of the night, my vision was impaired. I would hear the approach of people’s footsteps and flinch. I had to hold my brother’s hand and trust that he, a seven-year old, could guide us to the next house. I wanted to go home, but my brother insisted we continue to walk around. Toward the end of the night, someone threw a basketball at my head. The basketball bounced off my helmet and I heard someone say it rolled down a hill. I felt inhuman, as if I, a benign and benevolent Korean female, had been transformed into a clumsy monster with a misshapen, absurdly large, fiberglass-encased head. I decided to take off the helmet. My brother and I were standing at a new house. The door opened. Candy was distributed. “What are you?” asked the adult female as she looked over my outfit, but I had nothing interesting to say about what I was or what I had become.
We left our dog at a dog hotel in Brooklyn. We were sad about that. We signed up to receive daily updates about our dog. These updates gave our days a sense of structure. They assured us time passed and continued to pass. We were staying as artists at an artist’s residency in Oaxaca, but I never saw anyone making anything. We did not make anything. We did not notice any birds. It was as if there were no birds. Flowers, plants, trees. We noticed dogs, but we did not pet them. We walked a lot. We saw birds at a museum. The birds were not alive. We whispered things across the hall. Someone had a dog. We slipped on dog shit. A man gave us drugs. It was as if there were drugs everywhere. Nights we stayed in and watched movies projected onto a wall with our friend, a chef. The wall was stucco and sometimes on the wall there were enormous spiders, the size of a baby’s head. We didn’t want a baby. We forgot we had a dog. We thought of ourselves as explorers but we kept going to the same café, the same library, the same museum. I spent thirty dollars to ship a book from the US to the residency in Oaxaca. Why did I need that book? What book? I don’t remember. Kennel attendants emailed us photos of our dog eating, running around, sleeping, and sometimes staring at a window (or at its reflection) with a frightened and mournful expression. We spent an hour trying to find the right light bulb. We had a great time eating food that our friend cooked for us.
Our dog had a great time eating the bowl of dog food the kennel attendant placed on the concrete floor. I know this because the kennel manager sent me a video when we were in Oaxaca, and I can’t bring myself to delete it. Since we have rescued our dog, over a year ago, I have amassed 3,218 photos of our dog on my phone, but I do not show them to strangers at parties or anywhere. I try not to go to parties. I cancel plans last minute. If my parents ask to see a photo of our dog, I pretend I don’t know what they’re talking about. You do not go along with this. I have not explained to you why it might be a good idea for you to do that, and so I believe there’s a chance what we have done will one day be discovered. Over a year ago I walked past the photo of the dog in the Ziploc bag. Something about it seemed familiar. I remember staring at the photo as if I were from outer space traveling down a singular shaded path pointing in a single direction, a kind of boardwalk bordered with enormous yellow flowers drooping down. The plastic bag was thoughtful. I could tell that the owner genuinely cared about her dog, Samantha. She probably genuinely wanted her dog back. There were other pieces of paper attached to the telephone pole. People were walking around me, doing whatever, I don’t know, I didn’t understand how this could have happened, and I don’t know what I was thinking except it’s our dog, it’s our dog, that can’t be right, it’s our dog, it’s ours. I watched people closely. I saw a man whisper into a door. It didn’t bother me. I removed the photo of our dog from plastic bag, slipped it into my pocket, and went to work.
I pick up extra shifts at the box factory. For a few days a week I am a box technician. My apron states my occupation (“box technician”) and the number of years I have been employed (less than one). There are embroidered stars on my apron indicating the quality of my performance (two). All I do is measure boxes and sometimes I press a button on a machine. My parents don’t understand why I’ve taken up this particular line of work. They recommend I apply to teach creative writing at universities and colleges. I tell them I do not have the proper qualifications to teach at a university. They tell me Lake Erie is blue today. I do not tell them I am a self-identified peasant and I have never been published anywhere. I do not tell them I am in love with my job as a box technician because I can wear whatever I want to work. I wear sweatpants, yellow-tinted sunglasses, a Stetson hat, a sweatshirt, and Adidas slides (from my days showering in the dorm) and the same shirt underneath the sweatshirt. There will always be a great need for boxes. They never go out of fashion. I forward my parents links to news articles about humans going off the grid and returning to a primal, atavistic Box Man condition. I send them copies of The Box Man by Kobo Abe to explain this trend, this seemingly religious and/or spiritual movement. My parents try to read The Box Man. They do not understand this book and they do not select it for their book club.
Our dog’s name is Pablo. We named him Pablo because we liked the sound of the name. Also, we found him on our way home one night after Spanish class. It’s physically obvious Pablo is a female, but we use male pronouns. We tell ourselves that we are good people for rescuing Pablo from the streets and we are. Sometimes when I wake up, I wonder if I will be a good person today. On weekends we take Pablo to the forest. There’s no way his previous owners ever took him to the forest because he runs around crazily with his nose up in the air as if he’s been imprisoned most of his life and is suddenly free from his jailers. The smell of the forest reminds me of my childhood because my family spent a lot of time in forests before my father went to jail for tax evasion. I don’t remember what we did there in the forest. My brother got lost once and we ate hot dogs, but that’s all. Maybe once someone grilled portobello mushrooms. I remember begging my parents to let me have a dog. I promised to walk the dog and to clean up its shit. You’ll never have to touch the shit or think about it, I said, because I love cleaning up shit! I said this to my parents and I meant it. To this day I am the one who cleans up the dog shit. At the moment I type this I am thirty-seven, but this morning I wrote down that I’m thirty-eight for a rental application, because I’m closer to being thirty-eight than thirty-seven. Thirty-seven is far away from here. When I was thirty-four, I had good credit. It was always easy to secure an apartment. I had everything I wanted. Back then, people, even strangers, wanted to give me things, because they thought it seemed like I didn’t have nice things. I wore rags. I dreamt someone nominated me to march in a ragamuffin parade. I worked at a café then my clothes became soiled with coffee grounds. A coworker at the café told me I had “cool peasant vibes” and she gave me a designer plaid shirt with skulls embroidered on the sleeves. “This would look nice on you,” she said. It was fitted around the waist and the skulls embarrassed me (so gaudy). And she never said anything about how I never wore the shirt she gave me. We didn’t talk about it. I think I was being rude. I forgot to mention she herself designed the plaid shirt. She is a famous fashion designer. She continues to have a successful career.
We are sitting in a booth at our neighborhood Olive Garden. When the house salad arrives we appreciate the chilled bowl with its iceberg lettuce, its lack of pretension. You have simple taste in food and objects. Your clothes have holes in them. You don’t wash your hair. The lettuce is cold and sad. We discuss the customers who don’t want olives in their salad. You say there’s no point in that kind of behavior. “Yeah, those people are weird,” says our server Chloe. She has been listening to our conversation. She says she’s from Jersey, where we are moving in less than a month. Chloe asks us where we’re from. “It’s a known fact that the breadsticks deteriorate after seven minutes,” I say. I’m not trying to be rude. I am thinking about the deterioration of breadsticks. Sometimes I am rude inadvertently. I hear a man talking to a woman. “They know how to penetrate and they know how to dribble the ball,” he says. I see his reflection in the window. People are holograms of people riding horses into the void. It’s pitch dark out. The man and woman get up to leave. The woman stops to our table. She tells us we are a cute couple, that we are perfect together. We both laugh and it sounds like one person muttering. A few minutes later you ask me to write a story about Pablo, but I don’t know how. I’m not a writer. I will always be a peasant disguised as a box technician living in broken-down boardinghouse in the year of 1893. Everyone in this restaurant is smiling except the people who are leaving. I have always preferred to watch people walk away rather than to watch people approach, even my friends. If I had any. My mom doesn’t understand why I don’t have any. Here’s what my mom says about me: my mom says I’m a good person.
Sarah Gerard is the author of the forthcoming novel, True Love. Her novel Binary Star was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times first fiction prize, and her essay collection Sunshine State was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. Her collages have been published in BOMB Magazine, Epiphany Magazine, No Tokens Journal, Hazlitt, and The Creative Independent. Recycle, a co-authored book of collages and text, was published by Pacific in 2018.
Patrick Cottrell is the author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (McSweeney’s). He’s the winner of a 2018 Whiting Award in Fiction and a 2018 Barnes and Noble Discover Award. He lives in Florida.