Apr/May 2006  •   Fiction

Puppy Wonderland

by Nadine Darling

After the funeral I go and get the job at Petco. They need someone, and I understand how this is. The kid who hires me is 14 and has several phones and beepers attached to him, all wriggling and vibrating like rare, iridescent cockroaches.

Are you a head-case? He asks. The last one was a head-case. She carried the newts on her head and tried to save the crickets from the tarantulas.

He wipes his nose with the back of his hand. He has skin problems, car problems, girl problems. He is so tired.

I will not be a problem, I say, and he smiles.

I name the puppies after singers and musicians. Christina is a poodle who refuses to share her pink water dish with Iggy, the red Dachshund who can never remember if he's already eaten or not. Grace Jones is a hairless Chihuahua, and very experimental; she's frightening but intriguing; her bark sounds like some maniac art-student laugh at three in the morning after all the bars have shut down. Beck is a Boston Terrier. He always seems vaguely out of place, but luck follows him. He'll fall over a toy—some plastic drumstick with a smiley face—and find a Snausage, things like that.

I carry Beck around in the pocket of my apron when he can't sleep. We go on adventures, call the electrocution, feed the Koi from big buckwheat handfuls, shoo away kids who bang on the rabbit hutch. There is always something happening.

A few weeks in, I convince my young manager to let me stay inside the pet store at night.

It would be good for the puppies, I say.

We can't afford that shit, he says. What does this look like, PetsMart?

I do it for free. I cover the late shift, lock up, and bunk down with the puppies. I let them all out of their cages to run around free. They are very curious.

Kanye, the Pug, with his smushed, concerned little face like that of some decent and outraged clergyman, has fallen in love with a black and white guinea pig called Oreo. I hold Kanye up to Oreo's cage and let them smell each other. It is a yearning, complicated thing, and both of them cry and whine to be together.

I would take Oreo out of her cage and let them play, but I'm afraid Kanye would eat her. It wouldn't be his fault—sometimes that's the way it is.

I put down a bedroll and the puppies circle round. They nurse my fingers, nurse my earlobes. They sleep, their fat bellies filled with puppy chow and vitamin formula.

I think this is why people are afraid to be alone. Once you are really alone how long can it be before you move into the pet store?

Around my second month I stop talking to the customers. I have nothing to say to them. They are rubberneckers, sticky-fingered slack-jawed imbeciles. They are idiot children and their idiot parents. They are teenybopper girls popping grape gum, blonde with strands of blue or pink cut through like thick streams of jelly. They have no love for the puppies.

You have to talk to them, says my manager.

Nuh-uh, I say.

Well, why the fuck not?

I say, I am a deaf mute.

My manager thinks about this. He holds his head and says, I don't need this, man. I got an application over at TGIFridays.

I win. I gesture and grunt. When some kids makes for a puppy, I do my face like this, all gnashing teeth and curled lip. Killer puppies, attack puppies. Half pit bull, sure. That puppy was bred to fight in pits surrounded by sweaty men with fistfuls of cash, to wear spiked collars, to protect the stash. Everyone understands. What's the point of saying anything? Once you've said it, it's been said.

One morning, I wake early and leave the shades down. I don't unlock the doors or disarm the alarms. Soon it is bright enough outside, even with the shades in place, to feed the animals.

The phone rings. There are cars in the parking lot. The puppies and I play a game where I make hats out of newspaper and they wear them. Beck is a pirate dog. Iggy is a cowboy. I play the radio and show the puppies the box step. Forward right, forward left, side left, back right. They are very impressed—I know because they wag their tails. Puppies don't placate you; they either like a thing or they don't.

At eight, the knocking begins. They puppies startle. They race to the door. They bark. I bark. That's a thing that puppies do.