I wanted to project a state of indifference to Ann’s return. I wanted to be smoking on the stoop when her taxi pulled up. I had to smoke five in a row lighting one off the other in the half-hour wait for this effect.
Ann had every right to leave me, then return, on a sunny day in a taxi. We’d decided that our relationship should never impede us from further geographic exploration. We would not strangle one another. So I had no firm ground for self-pity. I would be indifferent to Ann’s return, then try to fox something else out of her I could legally be angry about, and this would have worked had the shih tzu’s heart not failed.
It was very hot the day Ann returned. The vapors of burning roof tar and gasoline squiggled the air in the two o’clock sun and the sky looked spattered with grease spots the way a stove looks after bacon’s been cooked on it. In front of the stoop I watched through the vapors a lady in the passenger seat of a pickup truck fan her naked baby with a missalette from Our Lady of Guadalupe, while her husband sold pork rinds the size of car mufflers to my neighbors. The shih tzu sat splayed on the stoop next to me. I cut its hair short the day before so you could see vulgar patches of pink skin through his shorn salt and pepper fur.
Since Ann left, the shih tzu has growled at things like car alarms and the robotic sound of “The Entertainer” that the ice cream truck loops as it crawls through the neighborhood. He seemed too proud to need any consolation from me concerning his absent master. I stopped walking him weeks ago. I would let him out but sit on the stoop while he mawed confusedly through the small patch of grass in front, writing some forlorn note with his urine. He could wander off at any time and I tried to let him know he could—our relationship had no geographical boundaries.
A jolt ran through me when I saw the taxi turn down our street—taxis normally avoid the neighborhood so I knew it was Ann. The taxi slowed at different points and I could almost hear her in the backseat giving miserable directions. Somehow the shih tzu also knew what the taxi meant and let out a strangely pitched howl as if it were trying to hold back a much stronger howl and the noise let out was the sound of its repression. The taxi rolled to a stop in front of the stoop and with a mechanical click the trunk opened to reveal Ann’s canvas bag. The shih tzu began to sprint without direction across the urine-soaked grass, indiscriminately revving a low growl. I was still smoking but the adrenaline from seeing her pay the taxi, seeing her bag pop up before me, numbed me to my crusted lungs. This was when I decided to nub the cigarette and walk to the trunk. The shih tzu growled at me while it ran clipped diagonals around my ankles as if it recognized my resignation, as if it were yelling: You pussy, don’t you remember the plan?
I plucked her bag from the trunk, then shut it. Ann, still in the seat, turned at the sound of the trunk to see me and smiled. She grabbed her change, exited the taxi, then stutter-stepped quickly toward me in her cork-bottomed heels. I saw the peach fuzz on her arms glistening, as the swarm of vapors intensified with taxi exhaust. I felt her unpainted lips against mine, and her curled brown hair run over my shoulder. I pressed my head far into her and felt trembles spill out of her like laughter; that’s when I heard the gurgled noises of the shih tzu. Ann heard them too and through this impossible confluence of emotions that the small sausage body of the shih tzu could not bear, we saw it on the sidewalk—its legs convulsing in the air.
Ann was first to the shih tzu. She reacted by placing her hands on her face like Olive Oyl might. I leaned down to the still-convulsing shih tzu. Our neighbors watched from their card table as I placed my hands on its small hairy chest and without thinking began compression. My hands were flush to its ribcage, with fingers up; most people don’t know to do this and end up breaking the victim’s ribs. Ann was covering her mouth, trying to keep her shrieks at bay. The shih tzu was no longer breathing and I wondered what it’d be like to have a dead shih tzu in the apartment, to move it around from the couch to the kitchen, to lift its dead head above the water bowl, to ventriloquize growl noises while pulling its black lips above its teeth.
On the third compression the shih tzu coughed out a breath, which meant I didn’t need to unseal and blow into its lips where a bit of foam seeped at the corner. We needed to get it to a vet.
Taxis will not pick up a man cradling a lifeless shih tzu. I explained this to Ann with different words, which made her face cringe around the eyes and loosen around the jaw as if she were about to have castor oil spooned into her throat. Our neighbors continued to watch us while breaking apart their pork rinds and splashing them with cayenne powder and lime juice. They own an old pickup truck with tall braces on either side of the bed. At the end of a normal day they’ll have ten feet of bent metal stacked in it. But they weren’t collecting that day. They were playing dominoes and watching us. Ann walked to their table and appealed to them in frantic hack Spanish for a ride to the vet. She has always been good at doing things like this. They stared at her nervously until a short and wobbly man with a mustache got off his chair and waved us to the brown Dodge pickup that had a dusty pink stuffed animal tied to the grill. I picked up the shih tzu. It was making strange noises and I was afraid to bring it close to Ann. Our neighbor told us his name was Jesús then drove us down the street to North Avenue en route to the vet.
The truck’s lame shocks and struts bucked across the grated North Avenue Bridge where prostitutes liked to swagger during the wolfing hours. The river looked uneven and overgrown with nasty life and decrepit fences. Ann talked to the shih tzu in my arms telling it we were almost there, that it would be OK. The shih tzu let out a curdled noise, which made Jesús clench the wheel tightly.
When we reached the vet we offered rushed thank yous to our mustached chauffeur who said, “I wait, I wait.” I told him not to and he was quiet, thinking it over. “I wait. I wait.”
Like every vet hospital the floors were a shiny laminate. I walked across the reflection of blurred fluorescent lamps, then handed the wilting shih tzu over to a man wearing a white lab coat. He asked a few questions, then walked to another room. Ann and I stood in the hallway not knowing what to do next. We didn’t look at each other, we were afraid to. The receptionist put her arm around Ann, then gently led us to seats in the front room that was occupied by a sleeping greyhound and its owner who was reading a magazine.
We sat close to one another. My arm ran the length of her thigh and clasped around her kneecap. She began to cry. Her face was red. I hugged her as tightly as I could, she hugged back with equal intensity. I wasn’t worried about the shih tzu, I was worried for Ann, and what I didn’t know then was that Ann worried about the same thing.
Three months ago Ann and I answered an ad in the paper calling for manual labor. The ad promised eight dollars an hour, free lunches and a chance to work for the European Circus. The next morning we sat on a curb outside a chain-link fence on Navy Pier with about fifty other people all hoping to work for the circus. At nine a short French-looking man with a cigarette hanging from his lips rolled open the fence, then walked away. We followed him to a trailer and filled out forms. Shortly after we were bona fide circus employees and Ann wearing her tank top, jean shorts, and work boots began to do what she does.
I used to hate people like Ann—people who try so hard to find connections, who concoct bogus ones if none exist, but I got tired of dragging that hatred around. I kind of need people like Ann around me.
The first Eurocarnie she met was a man named Jacques who wasn’t European at all—he was from Montreal but insisted Montreal was the same thing as Europe because he, like real Europeans, put a filter in his marijuana cigarette. Ann was mesmerized by this piece of exotica, this filter approach. She told me out loud in front of Jacques in an excited voice about the filter. “Oh, that’s cool,” I said lamely. And this shared social deviance was the beginning of a bond, something for Ann to snicker about with them. Jacques’s purpose for illuminating this detail was different. He wanted to score some weed.
Lunch was a bucket of apples, sodas, and Hostess cupcakes. The scab labor and the lower-echelon Eurocarnies ate around the trailer and tried to talk with one another. I had a shirt on that people liked so people kept saying “that’s a cool shirt” with big-toothed grins. I thanked them for the observation, not knowing how to build any conversation out of it. Ann interjected with “that shirt was his grandfather’s.”
By three we had some of the smaller tents broken down and everyone seemed happy to see the fruit of their work. Jacques decided the time was right to ask Ann if she could procure weed for him and his Eurocarnie cohorts. I was tying down some canvas when she asked if my friend Andrew still sold weed.
We left the pier weary and sundrunk at five-thirty. It felt wonderful to be a part of the rush hour, waiting on the platform for the El with Ann and all the slouched men in suits and women teetering on their pumps. The communal summer weariness made me feel accomplished and proud. On the El I stared out the window which held a thin reflection of my face shuttling over the blurring brown back porches of apartments filling with post-work television light. I would look at this then at Ann’s bare legs. She saw me doing this so she smiled and placed her hand on my thigh. “Can you call Andy when we get home?” she asked.
The Eurocarnies wanted three ounces—apparently they knew not to use the metric system when ordering up weed in the States. I called Andy. I hadn’t talked to him in a while, so it was a bit awkward. He lives in the suburbs with his chain-smoking mother and his girlfriend. Because of our conversation’s impossibly small radius, whenever I go to visit I spend most of the time looking into an aquarium at his collection of African fish that swim through a plastic skull.
“Three O-Zs—that’s a lotta weed, man.”
“Whatever you got is fine and feel free to, um, you know, gouge the prices a bit,” I explained to Andy, which didn’t excite him as much as hearing his future customers work for the European Circus.
That night Ann made us sandwiches and we ate them while watching Wheel of Fortune with the sound turned down and listened to a Gene Ammons record.
There’s this thing Ann does when she wants to have sex. It’s not very subtle. She’ll poke with her index finger at my penis then smile. If I wish to do the same I’ll also poke myself, then she’ll pick it up as if it were a telegraph, and start talking like a machine: “I feel ready to do the devil’s work how bout you. Stop.” Then I’ll volley back: “Armpits may smell corrupt but my hankerin for you is not. Stop.” It’s a stupid process but it’s quick and it works.
I could see the sun setting through the bay window as we rolled around. Her teeth, nose, and elbow made a viscous parallel as we shifted. She had this smile when she saw me acting aggressively. I saw her, the sunset, and Pat Sajak spinning under the slow repetitive hum of Ammons’ “Ca’ Purange” and I could be no happier.
Andy honked at 9:27 p.m. It was drizzling outside when I pulled the curtains to reveal his van idling on our street. Ann was more anxious than I and did nothing to hide it. When she grabbed her keys her face was all business.
Sliding open the side door of a van produces a scraping sound perfect for an entrance. Ann climbed in and I sat up front next to Andy. He’s five foot seven and looked like a Muppet in the plush captain’s chair of the van. We shook hands in that cool way you can shake hands with a person you don’t know, then took I-90 through the rain while Ann chirped about how wonderful it felt to be in an automobile on the highway. And it is nice to be on I-90 as it bends before the black steel skyline of Chicago, but it’s not that nice, and it was obvious Ann was over-nurturing the conversation.
We turned into the Presidential Towers which looked like four tall sticks of margarine. There was a guard at the gate reading a bodybuilding magazine. He let us in but his eyes emitted an air of suspicion, perhaps because of the van. This somehow planted the robust seed of paranoia in Andrew. The guard looked like a bodybuilder himself and this is not how Chicago police and security agents are supposed to look. They’re supposed to be fat “and if you can’t outrun them you deserve whatever sentence you get” is how a friend of mine explains it. There were more guards in satin jackets with walkie-talkies around the front of the building and Andrew felt that we should leave.
“They’re not looking to bust weed-peddlers. They just keep the bums out and administer the lost and found department. We’re on the same team—servicing the guest. Trust me,” I told Andrew.
“What if this is a setup? You don’t know these people.”
“Andy. You’re being ridiculous,” I countered.
It took five minutes of this kind of talk to coax Andy out of the van with his backpack chock-full of Mexican red-hair.
Jacques was happy to see us. “Come in, come in,” he warmly instructed. Ann led the way. We sat around a television broadcasting COPS. The Euorcarnies love this show, they explained, to which I shot Ann a look meant to express how wonderfully small the world really is. We watched intently as long metal Cutlass Cierras and Ford Thunderbirds raced and dipped, shooting sparks over dark pavement until the cops finally smashed them into a barricade, then squeezed what looked like a polyp of a tank-topped human out of the window and onto the ground where it was quickly shackled.
Ann seemed to glow in this company, giggling, and provocatively opening her mouth over their bong. Andy smiled like a father who had just ushered his daughter into the sacrament of first communion, feeling a sense of ownership and pride over the dull joy he’d just imparted. I was ready for the evening to end. I’ve never felt comfortable doing things like this, especially with the TV on to buttress any lulls in the conversation, but I tried to play along because Ann was so intent on impressing these people. At this point I should have made clear to her how stupid she was acting but I didn’t, and why she acted this way wasn’t revealed until later in the week when she made an announcement over lunch.
“They want me to travel with them to Atlanta and Florida.”
“Who?” I asked.
“The European Circus,” she said with a smile. “They’re taking care of everything. I won’t have to pay for food or shelter and they’ll be paying me—money that I can save.” I said next to nothing in response. As I explained earlier, I had no right to object. I should have brought up rent money and bills and all the other issues that require postage, but I couldn’t even do this. She seemed worried I might be hurt that they didn’t ask me along as well. She would be gone for three months, she explained, and I was to act as the shih tzu’s guardian.
I stared at the silhouette our twisted bodies made on the laminate floor of the vet. For five minutes we held one another until a separate agony seemed to overtake Ann and she broke free of my grasp.
“I deserve this. I deserve this,” she said. I reached back for her and she fell into me for a few seconds.
“I’m not a good girlfriend,” she said slurping up her tears after she’d broken free of me.
“Stop talking,” I said softly, but it didn’t work.
“I don’t deserve your support.”
“Of course you do,” I said.
“You don’t know. I don’t deserve it. I don’t . . .”
“Stop talking, Ann,” I said.
“No. There’s something we need to talk about.”
“No. There isn’t, Ann. Not right now,” I urged her. It was clear to me she’d done something, perhaps fucked an acrobat, and that sucks but she had no right to tell me now. She needed resolve; she needed to stop thinking in this old pattern. The world does not work this way, she is not being punished, the shih tzu’s heart is no divine message. The shih tzu’s heart failed because it was hot, because I neglected the thing, not for what she’s thinking right now. I wanted to tell her this but I didn’t, not because it wasn’t clear, it was the only thing that was clear. I thought about slapping her, but didn’t want to risk waking the greyhound and having it attack me. I tried forcing a stronger hug on her but this made her body recede into itself. “Do you want to tell me more?” I asked not hiding my exasperation.
“Don’t you think I should?”
“No,” I said which made her eyes bulge. Then something like laughter hiccuped out of her.
“No?” she repeated sobbing and laughing.
“No,” I said back. “It doesn’t matter right now.”
“What matters right now?” She asked.
I guess I should’ve said the shih tzu, but I never really liked the shih tzu until its heart failed so that didn’t seem fair. Before I could respond we turned to the sound of the vet’s footsteps along the corridor. He was holding the shih tzu, which was panting and trying to wrestle free. The vet walked over to us, then silently handed it to Ann who flashed a quick smile before walking with it to the counter where she laid down a credit card as if she were buying a loaf of bread. I stood next to her as she pretended I wasn’t there. I followed her out to the parking lot where Jesús was waiting in the brown pickup. He opened his mouth wide, unable to hold back the large wave of joy the live shih tzu brought him.