My neighbour Connie comes over to tell me that Sue’s dog, an eighteen-year-old chihuahua, drowned in the community pool last night. Marcus is there now with a skim net.
“Christ,” says Aura, my upstairs neighbour, leaning over her balcony. “I’m gonna finish this smoke then bring her some benzos.”
“You’re so sweet, hun,” Connie says to Aura. Then she puts her hand on my shoulder. “Mickey, you think you can go help Marcus out?”
I owe Connie. She’s the only property manager who would let me keep ten dogs in a one-bedroom apartment—pregnant potcakes from Belize and Cuba, foster failures from Miami-Dade, puppies found in trash bins. Heartworm. Mange. Parvo. Kennel cough. Connie feeds them Milk-Bones, calls them her hush-hush puppies.
But nothing here is hush-hush. Eight months ago I moved in just after midnight and couldn’t even unpack my car in private. Aura watched me, yelled down questions as her dog barked at me and my dogs—“What’s your name? Where’re you from?” Woof! Woof! “Shh!” Woof!
“Really.” She tossed down a pillow. “Doesn’t look like you brought one.”
Turns out Aura had lice, so then I got lice. Connie shampooed our heads with the garden hose, our loused hair clumping together under cold water. Sang the Oscar Meyer Weiner song three times. After the third, everyone would be in love with me, she turned off the hose. Gave us twenty one-dollar bills for the community laundromat. “Use the Speed Queens on extra hot, okay? And dump in a cup of bleach. And Mickey,” she said, as Aura went inside to gather her bed sheets, “Watch out for Aura. She’s only seventeen.”
At seventeen, Aura’s smoked enough to turn her lungs into twinned tar pits. Huffing out rings of nicotine that orbit on my popcorn ceiling, expanding when the Florida humidity gets to 85%, 90%. Aura yells through the vent—the divisions of this apartment complex are so thin—“Hey! You wanna come watch TV with me?” And I’ll ignore her, sweat into the carpet, stargaze at the yellowed Milky Way, dogs licking my salted skin.
She’s not my daughter. I’m not her mother. I’m just her downstairs neighbour. I’m twenty-four.
I take one of my dogs, Luca, with me to the pool. Marcus has skimmed out the dead chihuahua, Lana, and placed her in an insulated meal delivery box. He’s used to dead animals—before Connie hired him for property maintenance, he worked at Chimp Farm in Tarpon Springs.
“Mick,” he says. “Come over.” I sit with him on the diving board. “How’s Sue?”
“Aura’s checking on her.”
He pets Luca, points to where he found Lana, and then finally breaks the silence with, “I’m trying out Christian Mingle.” Tells me that he’s not Christian, but for the right woman, he would confess his sins, melt the little wafer in his mouth.
He shows me his profile picture. He’s in full scuba gear. You can barely see the pink scar that splits his face in half. Sue, drunk, once asked him, “Did the chimpanzee do that to you?” Marcus wouldn’t answer, doesn’t talk about his life in Tarpon Springs.
He swipes, swipes, switches over to Tinder. Swipes right, right. He swipes right a lot. He puts out. Connie’s told me that he’s slept with half the women here. All it takes is him snaking a drain, fixing some Rosetta Stone cassette tapes. I say, “We should really go get the dog cremated.”
He puts down his phone. “Gimme a minute.” Pinches off the heads of giant, flame-coloured marigolds, lays them next to the diving board. Grabs some sidewalk chalk, writes, REST IN PARADISE.
Who wouldn’t love someone who makes a dog memorial of chalk and flowers? Who can pull half a pound of hair from a shower drain without gagging. Twist magnetic tapes back into clean loops that say, Now repeat—qué onda?
Sue gets drunk by the pool. It’s late, like two a.m., but I’m there with her and Connie, drinking, too. Smoking and tossing the butts into the gut of an inflatable, floating flamingo. Maybe eighty feet from here, across Cypress Drive, is the laundromat. Aura’s there, holding a landline between her shoulder and cheek as she folds other people’s clothes, makes long-distance phone calls to lonely Mormon men in the Salt Lake Valley. Slides her hand across a Disney t-shirt, fake laughs. Hangs up the phone. Wipes her face. Dials another number. Mouths, heyyyyy.
Sue says that she might want to get a tattoo of Lana on her shoulder blade. “Here.”
Connie says, “I think that would be nice.”
Bless Connie, who really thinks that everything and everyone is nice. She’s too soft on the renters who take naked showers in the community car wash, slipping on leftover Turtle Wax and splitting their heads open on the blunt edge of the curb—but they must be nice! Or Natalie, the first-grade teacher who keeps plowing her two-door Toyota into Marcus’ mini orange grove—oh, sure, she’s a drunk, but she’s nice! Yeah right, Con. Get it together. She knows it takes Marcus hours to pressure wash the blood, splint the citrus trees. But then when I’m swimming, she’ll come out from the property manager’s office and toss me a bottle of Coppertone. Tell me to put it around my eyes. Points to her own face and says, “Believe me, you don’t want to look like this!” She’s lived in Florida, on the Suncoast, her whole life. She’s had skin cancer twice.
Now, she looks down into the pool, at the mermaids painted on the bottom. Limned in moonlight and shifting in the waves of the murmuring filter so that it looks like they’re dancing down there. Or drowning, shaking a fist and saying, help. Sue downs her fifth drink. I wonder if I could fit ten dog portraits on my skin. I’d look like that mural of mutts in Dunedin, painted on the outside of Skip’s Bar: Welcome to Dogedin. A smear of collies, shepherds, hounds. Dogs howling at my spinal cord, tails curled between my ribs. Aura makes another phone call. Folds a dryer-full of someone’s clean towels.
Sue, now 100% drunk, asks if I was named after Mickey Mouse.
Marcus joins us by the pool. He says that he got stood up at Red Robin. Tosses his keys at the flamingo, spilling all of the butts into the shallow end, blurring the mermaids. Then he says ten Hail Marys for Lana—practice for his future Christian Mingle marriage. We play buzz—one, two, three, four, five, six, buzz, eight, nine, ten, fuck—fizz. “You drink, Mick.”
Four a.m. Swiping left, left, and right. Sue drawing temporary tattoos on the soft inside of her arm with an inky blue pen: Lana’s face overlapping Lana’s face, a map of her dead dog grief. I smudge a small line of blue, hold Sue’s wrist and tell her I’m sorry. “Thank you, Mickey Mouse.” I watch Aura, still in the laundromat, talking, caped in a 101 Dalmatians pool towel.
“Be nice,” Connie says to Marcus, “And help Mickey home.”
I’m just as drunk as him, but we lace hands and walk towards my apartment. Halfway there, I stick my head into a planter of marigolds, try to puke in privacy. “Damn, garden head,” says Marcus, pulling back my yellow hair. “You can’t hold your liquor.” I cough, and he tells me not to worry, that tomorrow, he’ll top it off with some Miracle-Gro. And then he’s standing in my kitchen, getting me a glass of ice-heavy Gatorade that I drink, push the cold cup against my breastbone. He tightens the p-trap of my leaky sink. Wipes a drip of nicotine from the backsplash. I ask him if he wants to stay the night.
My ten adopted dogs watch us have almost-sex—almost, because I change my mind at the last minute. “It’s cool,” he says, and covers my naked body with a thin dog bed cushion. Kisses my cheek. “I’ll see ya in the morning, Mick. I’m coming by to fumigate for cockroaches.”
I’m embarrassed, so when Marcus comes to fumigate, I don’t talk to him. Me and Aura stand outside with our dogs. She smokes, tells me that she’s sick of the phone sex gig, that Mormon dads in Utah are so fucking boring. “You think there’s enough bandwidth here for cam stuff?”
“Well, Connie’s looking into getting fibre optic installed.”
“Cool,” she says. “So, you almost fucked Marcus. I heard you. I saw him leaving.” I don’t say anything. She tosses her cigarette onto the ground. Lights another. Says that Marcus looked sad, took a pee in the parking lot. Asks if I want to come over tonight. “We could watch reruns of Pretty Wild on MTV. Or candle our ears. Or get really high and prank call the neighbours.”
She keeps talking. “Or order Five Guys and get an entire bag of peanuts and go to Chimp Farm and ask if it’s really true. About Marcus’ face. Or break into the church food bank and steal all of their Fruit Gushers. Or ride bikes down the Pinellas Trail to St. Petersburg. Or pool hop in Sarasota suburbs. Or”—she pauses to cough and I watch Marcus adjust his gas mask, spray insecticide along the door jambs. “Or go to Orlando and watch the Disney World fireworks from the parking lot. Look, hey Mick, look.” I look, and she exhales a perfect ring of smoke. “Ka-boom.”
That night, I go to the pool instead, with Connie, Sue, Natalie, Marcus, and my dogs. Natalie is passed out, almost, on a lounge chair. And Aura’s back in the laundromat. Folding, talking.
Marcus is finally about to tell us what happened in Tarpon Springs, at Chimp Farm, when we see a red Supra pull up to the laundromat. Marcus says that it’s Aura’s ex-boyfriend from Tallahassee.
The ex gets out of his car, yanks open the laundromat door. Aura presses the phone to her stomach. Aura and her ex go back and forth—louder, louder—until he raises his hand, hits Aura across the face so hard that her bottom lip splits open and splatters blood across the row of white dryers. Her body does a half-spin. Wrapped in the coiled phone cord, she falls over. By the time she hits the tile, we’re there, all of us, my ten dogs ringed around Aura. Marcus wrestles the ex into a chokehold. Says, “You think you’re stronger than a chimpanzee?” He’s not. His face turns blue. Marcus loosens his grip and before the ex can slip his head loose, Connie spits in his face.
He tells us all to fuck off, leaves the laundromat. Tries to do a three-point turn but fails again and again. “Ha!” says Natalie, “You drive worse than I drive drunk!” She throws laundry pods at the hood of his car, blue and green clusters of detergent exploding. And Connie pets Aura’s yellow hair—“Shh, honey, you’re okay, you’re okay”—and Aura bleeds onto the pile of laundry, onto Dalmatians, and the moron on the other end of the phone asks, “Hello? Um, are you still there?”
Aura melted a benzo under her tongue as I pressed an ice pack to her busted lip, put her to bed. And now I’m walking through the apartment complex with my Catahoula, Lola. She pees and pees—she has a UTI. I pet her face, scarred from where another dog, a fighting dog, tore her cheek open.
The light is still on in the laundromat. Connie is lit in fluorescence, cleaning blood from the dryers.
“Mickey,” she says. She points at my shirt, covered in Aura’s blood. “I’ll wash that for you. Hands up.”
I sit, in just a bra and shorts, on top of a Speed Queen. Connie keeps cleaning, dipping a rag into a bucket of diluted bleach. Lola gnaws on a dryer ball.
Connie says, “You know, when Aura got here, she had to sign her lease with her left hand, because her right thumb, it was dislocated. Couldn’t hold the pen. Her nose was in a cast. I don’t know if it was him, or some other asshole in Tallahassee, but Aura, she’s a kid—she shouldn’t have it this rough.” I should have gone with her to St. Petersburg, Sarasota, anywhere. Connie leans up against a washer, hands on her hips. “How old are you, Mickey?”
“You’re a kid, too.” She pulls her red hair into a bun, and I can see the keloid scar on her neck where her skin cancer was cut out. “You pay your rent in cash. You don’t have a job. You don’t tell us anything except that you’re from Orlando. Mickey, Mickey. . .”
Mickey. Orlando. Orlando: I hid in a dog crate while my boyfriend turned the house to a hurricane—fists flying through drywall, yanking wires out. “Hide and seek, Mickey Mouse? You know I’m gonna find you.” Broken plates. Broken ribs, too. Our dented fridge covered in Money Mart loan receipts, eviction notices. Duke Energy making the phone ring every day, then making things go dark.
Waiting, waiting—then, cashing my last Denny’s paycheck and emptying my bank account and escaping into my Corolla. Down the I-4. Ribs healing at RV campgrounds, Walmart parking lots. Putting miles between me and Orlando, me and him. And as I looped through the sunshine state, I collected dogs with wormed hearts. Dogs that had laboured litter after litter of designer mutts, their milk-sucked nipples dragging on the hot Florida asphalt. Bait dogs. Dogs to surround me, love me, protect me, here, in Clearwater. Far enough that he wouldn’t bother to come looking, to come for a fight.
But Tallahassee to Clearwater is more than double the distance of Orlando to Clearwater.
Connie says, “Mickey, oh, I’m sorry, I’m—I didn’t mean to make you . . . You don’t have to tell me. Here.” She wraps me in a clean pool towel. “Go home, go to bed. It’s been a bad night.”
I lay on my kitchen floor, hidden in curls of sleeping dogs. Their lungs wheeze like dull, singing saws. Mange-ringed tails drumming the tile floor. At five a.m., Marcus revs up the lawnmower. Connie turns on the sprinklers. Aura plays her favourite song on loop. But the divisions are so thin and I can hear her cry. I guess she can hear me too.