When Abe got home from work, there was a man selling puppies out of a van parked in front of his house. A litter of five, all black, thirty dollars apiece. Abe leaned into the van to check them out, and one squirmed out of the pile and pushed her snout up the sleeve of his jacket and sighed, so he paid the guy and went inside with his new dog. Nicole found them napping on the couch when she got home an hour later, man and pup sweetly entwined in the evanescing light.
Abe handed Nicole the puppy. She held it up and saw that it was a girl, with light brown eyes and one ear that stood up and one that fell forward at the tip. The puppy was a surprise, but not exactly a shock. Abe was nothing if not spontaneous. He lived in an eternal now, enjoying instant pleasures and experimenting with impulses. Give him your last few dollars for a quart of milk and he might come back from the store with a car magazine or a novelty keychain instead. He was a person who defrosted the freezer with a plumber’s torch. “Don’t worry about it,” he kept saying, “I know what I’m doing.” Sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t, and Nicole wasn’t always able to tell the difference before it was too late. She found that she was perpetually on guard against an oncoming disaster. Now, as she cradled the puppy, she told herself that it was Abe’s dog—that they did not have a dog together—and she didn’t say anything later in the evening when he named the puppy Mothra.
It was Mothra, not Abe, who greeted Nicole at the door when she got home the next day. From the vestibule, Nicole saw Abe sitting on the kitchen floor with his back to her, tools scattered around him. The floor was strewn with coffee grounds and chewed-up styrofoam. Abe was absorbed in some job involving a spool of heavy-gauge wire and a red metal box about the size of a pound cake, which he was screwing to the inside of the sink cabinet.
“Man, this dog is sneaky,” Abe said when he noticed Nicole. “Every time I leave her alone, she comes in here and gets in the trash.” He began unspooling the wire.
“What are you doing?” Nicole asked.
“Hmmm.” He twisted the end of the wire around a screw on the side of the box.
“Is that a battery? Wait. Are you putting up a cattle fence?”
“Don’t worry about it. I know what I’m doing.”
“But, no, you’ll electrocute her!”
Abe put down the screw gun. This was something that he could not stand: to be interrupted when he had a full head of steam. “I’m not gonna electrocute anyone,” he said patiently. “Look, see? It’s only 2,000 volts—just enough to give her a snootful. It isn’t even for cattle. It’s for ponies. Or, I don’t know, sheep.”
It was true that Abe had a much better grasp of popular science than she did. Still: “No, that can’t be how you’re supposed to keep a dog out of the trash.”
“Look, I know about dogs. How many dogs have you had? That’s right, none. And how many dogs have I had? Counting this one, I’ve had four dogs.”
As it happened, Abe got shocked by the electric fence before Mothra did—several times, in fact—and he decided on his own to take it down.
Nicole had been very interested in animals as a child. She’d read any book she could find about them, including Never Cry Wolf and Call of the Wild, and she’d been disturbed, especially in the latter, by the undercurrent of need and violence that seemed to attend stories about man and dog together. She felt it had put her off the idea of getting a dog herself. Yes, this was Abe’s dog. But after the cattle fence incident, she decided to take some dog training books out of the library.
“Dogs are pack animals.” It was something you heard all the time. The fact that Mothra was destined to form a pack with the people around her meant that the issue of dominance needed to be addressed early on “Place your puppy gently on its side,” one book instructed. “Hold both of its front paws in one hand and both of its back paws in the other. Your puppy will not like this, and may even try to bite you.” Mothra submitted to the hold patiently. Nicole consulted the illustration to be sure that she was doing it correctly, and seeing that she was, decided to return the books. This was a good puppy.
Abe took Mothra to the corner for cigarettes, on handyman jobs, for aimless drives; he taught her—or she naturally knew—to run alongside his bike, stopping to wait next to him at corners. But it seemed to Nicole that he treated Mothra too much like a sidekick and not enough like a pet. If he didn’t feel like leaving the house, Mothra didn’t get a walk. So Nicole started taking her to a churchyard half a mile from the house—an unexpectedly large expanse of grass and trees, hidden from the densely built South Philadelphia neighborhood by a high brick wall. The church was of some historical significance, part of the national park that included Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, and it was sometimes patrolled by rangers in Smokey the Bear uniforms, but not often enough to keep an unofficial dog park from taking root.
From their first visits there, Mothra and Nicole began making friends. The churchyard was a village, and the circumstances were socially liberating for Nicole. She had long conversations with cranks, yuppies, racists, conspiracy theorists, daytime drinkers—all kinds of people she would normally have avoided. Mothra was especially friendly with a white German Shepard named Mandy, and because of the relationship between their dogs, Nicole was often drawn together with Mandy’s owner, Don. He was short, shorter than Nicole, with a grey Afro and mirrored cop glasses and a yellow complexion. His face was rough-hewn, like a boulder or a chainsaw sculpture, and he had a high, cigarette-shredded voice. He was a truck driver, out on disability the whole time Nicole knew him. The details of his injury were mysterious. He had a running prescription for Vicodin, which (he confided in Nicole) he almost always ended up trading in with his dealer for cocaine. Don had an unpredictable temper. Some days he would just sit on a tree stump with his back to everyone, other days he was chatty, and either of those moods might disappear in an instant if he felt that Mandy was being in any way aggressed or even snubbed by another dog. Because of it, he was not well liked among the other dog owners, but Nicole found him affecting.
Abe was not as interested in the churchyard as Nicole was, perhaps because he didn’t share her desire to be socially liberated. He liked playing with the dogs, but the conversations bored him. One evening when Abe was with her, Nicole was talking with the owner of a mulish young basset hound. He mentioned that his dog wasn’t housebroken, and Nicole suggested crate training.
“It sounds mean but it’s really not, I don’t think,” she said. “The crate is supposed to be like a den, so they feel safe in there. First thing in the morning take him right outside, and give him a treat when he pees. You’d be surprised how quickly they get the idea.”
“Tried it,” the basset’s owner said. “He stood in there rocking the crate back and forth till it tipped over, and then when I opened the door, he ran upstairs and took a shit on my bed.”
“The problem is,” said Abe, “your dog is an asshole. He needs to get over himself.”
This worldview, in which a dog could be an asshole and could be called on it, was interesting to no one besides Nicole, so after a while she stopped trying to involve him in the society of the dog park. At home, Mothra liked to keep Abe company while he tinkered and experimented at his workbench in the basement. Abe’s workshop was a reliquary of antique hand tools and trash-picked chandeliers, lushly redolent of exotic solvents with names like naphtha, xylene, Japan drier. His basement stockpile was not, in fact, a pile, but rather a collection from which he could always retrieve the correct size of cast iron hinge, or a certain shade of Minwax stain, or a Craftmatic bed motor, or an eight-feet long industrial roller track—or the electric fence battery, which had been returned to its spot on the shelf until Abe could think of another use for it. Mothra found among Abe’s things a piece of egg crate Styrofoam and claimed it as her nest.
Walking past the open door, Nicole heard snippets of one-sided conversation. “Now watch how I mix up the paint. You have to make sure you get all the goo off the bottom of the can.” She imagined Mothra sitting at saucer-eyed attention as he demonstrated, one ear standing up and the other bent forward at the tip.
The time came for Mothra to be spayed, but Abe didn’t see the need for it. “If she gets knocked up, we can sell the puppies,” he said. It hadn’t occurred to Nicole that she would have to mount a defense of something so obviously correct. Abe answered all her arguments with apocalypto-nihilism. Overpopulation? Fine, when they let me spay a few people, I’ll spay my dog. It was a retread of their fight over recycling: Abe acknowledged the problem, but he said Nicole was delusional if she thought she could do any good.
Nicole eventually won the fight through attrition. She brought Mothra home from the vet all weak and dopey and settled her next to Abe on their napping couch, and Mothra rested her head on Abe’s lap while he stroked her belly, which had been shaved for the operation.
“This feels so weird,” he said.
“I guess,” Nicole said cautiously, detecting a note of exploratory zeal.
Abe was silent for a moment. “Wouldn’t it be intense if her fur was all shaved like this?”
As high summer approached, Nicole and Mothra spent longer hours at the churchyard. On warm evenings someone might show up with a case of beer, and they would linger way past dinnertime and into the gathering dusk watching bats swoop around the giant old trees. Nicole looked forward to this time as much as Mothra did. Sometimes everyone stood around silently, watching the dogs. The puppies ran around in circles big and small, circles within circles, figure eights and zigzags. Some, like Mothra, were chasers, and some wanted to be chased. Mothra was far from the fastest, but she had a stock herder’s instinct for the cutoff. The old dogs, the ones with white muzzles and cloudy eyes who were content to stand near their owners or sniff around the tree roots, filled Nicole with existential sadness. As with the people, Nicole found that her sympathies ranged wider and farther than she had ever imagined. She didn’t, as she’d always thought, like the little bug-eyed dogs any less, or the fussy breed dogs with their strange haircuts. The delight of them, and the tragedy, was that they were as doggy as any others, bearing the yoke of human vanity with canine indifference.
The first real heat wave of the summer arrived, and the churchyard drew crowds of people avoiding the convective heat of their brick row houses. The dogs were lethargic and their owners cranky. Don was scrapping more and more with the others. He called one of the yuppies a fag and then refused to apologize, and everyone got involved. Nicole, who took it upon herself to smooth things over, learned that Don was being evicted—along with Mandy, two cats, and a pet rat who shared a studio apartment with him. His disability case was headed to court. Soon he would be either homeless and broke or $50,000 richer. Nicole told him that maybe, in the meantime, he should switch from cocaine back to Vicodin if that was what it took for him to calm down a little.
There was no air conditioner in the house, and the three of them—Abe, Nicole, and Mothra—liked to sit outside on the cool marble stoop on hot afternoons. All up and down the block, people had the same idea. Radios played through open windows. Their neighbor ran a hose up from his basement through the sidewalk bulkhead and filled a kiddie pool. Children dragged their toys outside—Big Wheels, stuffed animals, tins of colored chalk.
Nicole balanced a bowl of green beans in her lap. She was snapping the ends off and dropping them into a pot on the step next to her.
“I’m going for a six-pack,” Abe said. “C’mon, Mothra.”
“Leash.” Nicole snapped it to Mothra’s collar and handed the end to Abe.
Abe took Mothra’s leash off as soon as they rounded the corner. They ducked into Costello’s, where Mothra lay at the foot of Abe’s stool while he drank a short glass of beer at the bar, her ears and fur riffling in the breeze from the industrial floor fan. Frankie, the Brylcreemed bartender, handed a pot of water over the counter, and Abe set it down next to Mothra without comment. She lifted her head in acknowledgement and then flopped back on the cool tiles.
Walking out of the bar half an hour later with the six-pack in a paper bag, they surprised two small boys on the sidewalk, who shrieked and hugged the wall as they passed.
“Wolf! Wolf!” yelled the older boy.
Abe snorted. “That’s right!” He and Mothra exchanged a sly glance and headed home. “She wouldn’t be so hot if you let me shave her fur,” he said to Nicole when they got to the stoop.
Soon after, Nicole woke early to the bounce of Mothra jumping onto the bed. Shielding her eyes against a harsh slant of sunlight, she reached over to pat the dog and felt not the expected softness but stubble. Dropping her other hand, she saw that everything but Mothra’s head and her paws had been clipped down to the blue-black skin. The fringe around her head was jagged and improvised, starting at the base of her skull on one side and extending up to her ear on the other. Her tail thumped hairlessly on the bed.
Nicole ran downstairs and found Abe in the bathroom, electric clipper in hand, standing in a pile of lustrous black fur.
“What the hell is wrong with you, Abe?”
“She was hot,” he said, suddenly glum.
Nicole learned that dogs can get sunburns. Mothra had to wear a T-shirt on her walks, to the delight of the neighborhood kids and old women. Under the T-shirt, her skin chafed and flaked and erupted in a rash that required Prednisone. In the waiting room at the vet’s office, a nice lady with a cat carrier on her lap asked Nicole what happened, and when Nicole explained, she said, “I hope you showed that fellow the door!”
But Nicole did not show Abe the door. She even found herself in the position of defending him at the churchyard.
“If someone did that to Mandy, I’d kick his ass,” said Don.
The basset owner tried to convince Nicole that Abe was dangerous. “They always start out on animals,” he said. “Gary Heidnik, Jeffrey Dahmer. Look it up.”
“No,” said Nicole, “he’s not a sadist. He’s just got an overactive imagination.”
“What’s imaginative about shaving a dog?”
This was hard to explain. What she was thinking of was something peculiar to Abe—an ecstatic tunnel-vision. Once the possibility of the shaved dog had found its way into in his brain, she’d been unable to dislodge it. Now she tried to at least make him see why it troubled her. They argued in circles, and though he admitted that he’d been curious about seeing Mothra without her fur, he always came back to the same position: it was hot, and therefore, whatever caused the initial impulse, he was justified in shaving her. Anyhow, dogs got haircuts all the time, and Nicole was making way too big a deal of the whole thing.
Mothra wasn’t angry; she still adored Abe and kept him company in the basement and took naps with him. After all, she’d stood cooperatively for the entire twenty or thirty minutes it took him to buzz off all her fur. If she had any misgivings about the results, she forgot them instantly, because that was the way of dogs. Nicole, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to let it go. She felt badly about Mothra’s rash, of course, and she prickled with humiliation when she took Mothra out in public, but there was something else. Every time she looked at Mothra, she found herself un-forgiving Abe a bit more.
“I think I get it,” said he one day. “It’s like when I was five, and I took my parents’ alarm clock apart, and no one could figure out how to put it back together, and then they had to throw it out and buy a new one.”
“No,” Nicole said, “It’s nothing like that. Your parents’ clock was not sentient. This is the whole problem, this right here.”
“Don’t worry,” Abe said, rolling his eyes. “I learned my lesson.”
“Don’t shave the dog.”
“I’m not just trying to be right, you know,” Nicole said. “It really bothers me that you haven’t learned anything from this.”
“Fine. If we ever get a cat, I won’t shave that either.”
“I can’t believe you’re still joking about this,” she said.
“You know what I can’t believe? I can’t believe you’re still bitching about it. Jesus Christ, get over it, Nicole. The dog is fine. Aren’t you fine, Mothra?” The dog, who had been lying on the floor shifting her eyes from Abe to Nicole and back again, perked up at the sound of her name and sat at attention in front of Abe. “Anyhow,” he continued, “who bought her? Me. I bought her, she’s my dog, so fuck off.”
Nicole took all the money in her pocket and threw it at him. “You want your $30? Here.”
Abe and Mothra were in the car, driving through the utilitarian drear of Northeast Philly, looking for a floor supply warehouse. It was here somewhere, in one of these shitty industrial parks. While Abe was scanning the parking lot signs on the side of the road, he noticed someone scuttling along the ditch with a red plastic gas can. Short, scrawny, frizzy grey hair. He looked familiar. Oh yeah, that guy from the dog park—Nicole’s wasteoid friend. Abe pulled alongside the guy.
“Hey, I know you,” he yelled out the passenger side window.
Don didn’t immediately recognize Abe. He walked over and leaned in the window.
“Yeah, right—Abe, Abe,” said Don.
“What are you doing walking around out here?”
Don waved his gas can.
“Let me give you a lift,” Abe said. He reached across and opened the door.
“Man, I’m glad you stopped,” said Don, sliding in. He leaned over the seat to put the gas can in the back. Mothra stood up to say hello. “Hey, lookit you.” Don gave her neck a scruff. “Her fur’s growing back. Is she going to be grey like this now?”
“I think that’s just her undercoat.”
“I gotta say, she looks a lot better.”
Abe ignored it.
“I mean, she looked pretty fucking weird,” Don added.
“Like a plucked chicken or something.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I thought I’d never hear the end of that one.”
“Nicole’s a nice girl, man. My old girlfriend would’ve kicked my ass if I pulled a stunt like that.”
“I know,” Abe said with a sigh. “She’s a class act.”
They filled the gas can at a Sunoco and headed back toward Don’s car. Abe turned on the car radio and found the Drexel station.
“Oh yeah,” said Don approvingly when a Dictators song came on.
“Hey Don, are you a musician?” Abe asked.
“You look like Handsome Dick Manitoba. Did anyone ever tell you that?”
“Really?” said Don, pleased. “You really think so?
By the time they got back to Don’s car, they were having such a nice time chatting about this and that—punk rock, Don’s settlement check and how to spend it—that they decided to pick up a six-pack and drive around some more. Enjoy the sunset. The check was coming in any day, and Don was going to take Nicole’s advice. He was going to buy a little rowhouse for himself and Mandy and the rat, maybe somewhere down near Packer Park where the prices were still low. He was living in a motel in South Jersey right now, and he’d had to get rid of the cats, which broke his heart. But at least he still had his rat, and of course Mandy, and soon they’d have their own little place. Nicole and Abe could come over sometimes, and bring Mothra.
“Tell you what,” said Don after a while, “I have a little bit of coke here. You want to pull in somewhere and do a line? Just don’t tell Nicole, okay?”
Abe hesitated. “I don’t really like coke.”
“I have a joint…”
“I can’t smoke weed either.”
“What do you like?”
Abe thought for a minute. He liked acid, but that was probably out of the question. “Heroin. I like heroin.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?” Don said. “Turn around.”
They headed back south. Mothra sat up in the back seat and watched the drive-thrus and car lots and clusters of vinyl-clad rowhouses roll past in the growing darkness. Soon they were traveling under the Frankford El, through the dollar store corridor of Juniata, and into the nefarious Kensington gloom. They stopped outside a bar with a glass brick front. Don went in and came outside with a guy in a do-rag and an enormous white t-shirt. The two disappeared around the corner. Don came back a few minutes later and handed Abe a glassine bindle. It had a little skull and crossbones and the word FLATLINE stamped on it.
“That’s the high-test,” said Don. “So, you’re not gonna tell Nicole about this, right?” He pulled something else out of his pocket: a needle. Abe hadn’t thought of that, but what the hell.
It was high-test, all right. Abe woke up on the ground in the lot behind the glass brick bar with a flashlight shining in his eyes and a shot of Narcan in his arm. He was suddenly not high at all, and Don was nowhere. The scenery sloshed past as the paramedics rolled him onto a gurney: a urine-streaked wall, a shot-out street light, a row of houses across the street staring back at him with distempered plywood eyes. As they lifted Abe into the ambulance, he saw that the front doors of his car were wide open.
“Mothra,” he said, or had he only thought it?
MIMI LIPSON lives in Kingston, NY, and for the nonce in Hell's Kitchen. Her first story collection is forthcoming in 2014 from Yeti Publishing.