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I give back the puppy.
I get to my feet. I say, “This is strictly a matter of animal control, which you are in direct violation under code 3883—sorry, no, that’s not it.”
“What is code 3883?” A meaty index finger paints the numbers in the air. “So shapely.”
“Three-eight-eight-three is code for ritual animal destruction.”
“Oh, my.” J. J. rises and adjusts his jeans, then strides over to what must be a cupboard if the sound of tin cans knocking is an indication.
“I’ve offended you, Ms. Stero.”
“Negative.” They think they can get to you.
J.J. squeezes down on a can opener. The tin clicks and gasps, salty and foul, and I am hit all over again with the living that smells in this house.
The dogs yip and claw and beat at their basement door.
“Cat food?” I say.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” J.J. looks back at me and frowns. The can opener clatters to the counter. Sauntering over, J.J. reaches for my face, his salty fingertips hot, soft. “What’s the matter, Ms. Stero?”
J.J.’s hip riding up at my radio is the matter. You can go heart to heart all you want, but in the end there’s no knowing how an individual will behave under pressure.
“Dogs were the concern,” J.J. says.
“You concern me—”
“The number in my home.”
“People are their homes.” I need to get some air.
J.J.’s chin lifts. “Cute.”
“Just something my kid said.”
“Too bad about your kid.”
“I said too bad—
“No, I meant what makes you say that, J.J., about my—”
“Easy now, Ms. Stero.” J. J. drives his index finger between my teeth. Stunned, I am a bottle corked. My tongue shoves the finger out, but the finger pushes back in. Probing its ridges, I grasp the digit between my cheeks. “Oh!” He yanks it out. “Don’t suck it.”
“You groped me!” I say, panting. “How dare you.”
J.J. blinks repeatedly as he wipes his finger on his shirt. “I beg your pardon? The way you were breathing, worse than a snorting bull. Mother of God, I had to do something before you split in two, Ms. Stero.”
I want to laugh. I am not without humor for how things can go. And all at once I do go, thin-skinned spasms, swoon—
“Oh no, Ms. Stero,” J.J. says, catching me under the arm, “none of that.”
He drags me into a room without windows that may have served as a large pantry if the number of shelves is indication. The springs of the sofa twang beneath me as I turn my back to him and glare at dog fur sprouting from the brown velour cushion. J.J. returns a moment later, patting a feather duster along the heads of porcelain dogs sitting up on the shelves above. His apron swells into view. Above the ruffle runs a pattern of children netting butterflies. J.J. is whistling Snow White’s song for cleansing the cottages of dwarves. She always sang that song, my little girl, Virginia.
At the sound of my gasp, he looks over. “You all right now, Ms. Stero?” He extends his hand to help me up. “It ain’t exactly a fainting couch.”
“It’s not policy to faint.” I get up on my own and walk, not run, to the front door.
“Oh, don’t get all huffy,” he says, following me into the hallway. “If it’s about me putting a finger in your mouth? I can clear that up. Something sure set you off. All at once I’ve got a lady who is not breathing. You were turning blue, Ms. Stero. Blue. So I inserted my finger. I read it on a dog blog, ‘Seven Surefire Remedies for Hyperventilation.’”
At the sound of their master’s voice, a welter of noise starts up behind the basement door. I picture the whole mob packed in on the top two steps.
“Now, now,” J.J. tells his dogs, “keep your coats on.”
Their proximity reminds me that there is safety in duty. “I am here to inspect dogs. I haven’t seen any. I am required to make a count. Open the door,” I say. “That’s an order.”
J.J.’s eyes slide to the basement door, then back to me. “Suspicion makes those baby blues appear small, Ms. Stero. Shame on you, your best feature.” He steps toward me.
“No!” I step back. “Stay, you. Stay away.”
His hands fly up. “Okay. Okay! Show yourself out!”
I’m back on the lawn, my heart pounding. The sun pitches behind the eave on his house, and I am cast in dark. Across the street a child in the preschool wails, “Wah, wah, wah.”
* * *
“Canines,” I say. “An excessive number inhabit the dwelling.” Headquarters is dead except for the drone of barking dogs in sanitation.
“You get a count?”
Pedro’s eyes stay on me. “You been lying down? Your hair. It’s got that bed look.”
“Pedro,” I say, “the fact is that in spite of following procedure, I did not see any dogs.” I carry the forms to my desk located directly across from Pedro’s. The dogs in sanitation have quieted. I check the office clock. Feeding time. Pedro is still staring at me.
“So what they complaints about?” he says.
“The house does smell. There are canines in residence. I heard them.” I look at my hands. “I held a puppy.”
“Against policy, Stero.”
Two) Bathroom break.
I walk out of the office and head down the corridor to the ladies and open a stall door and sit on the can. I think about unbuckling my belt and removing the pants in case I need to evacuate, but that all of a sudden seems like a lot of trouble.
The door opens and someone tiptoes in. I try to keep the noise down to a sniffle.
Pedro says, “Is that you crying, Stero?” His boots are visible in the stall beside mine. “For the last four year everybody round here been saying that Stero going to lose it one day. I tell them, nah man, Stero got guts behind those impressive set of…like that, you know? Look how fast she get back to work after that abduction and shit happen. Stero, she writing citations for excesses two to one over the other chingasos here.” He clears his throat. “You took the loss like a man, Stero. What’s hot is that you are a woman.”
He rubs a sheet of toilet paper back and forth across the toe of his black boot until the paper breaks up and balls away. He stands and shuffles out the stall.
Three) I know what I have to do.
Pedro is at the coffee station pouring some in his mug. “I appreciate your loyalty, Pedro,” I say, “but in point of fact I did seek treatment. The county therapist treated me for the mandated session. Her treatment consisted of a list of recommendations. One was to relinquish everything that reminded me of Virginia. I ever tell you how my ex dumped all her pets back on me?”
“You told me.” He springs back to his desk.
I trail after Pedro and hand him the mug he left behind. “Pedro, what evidence do police require to get a DNA sample? Hair, nails, what?”
“That puppy was stolen?” Pedro whispers.
“You mean like hair from a people?”
“J.J. said, ‘Too bad about your kid.’ Pedro, why would J.J. say that?”
“J.J.?” Pedro frowns. “That a man or a woman?”
“Good question. We’ve got about a million ways to declare our sex and species. Why not make it plain and get on with living?”
“Stero, why you talking about this J.J.?”
“J.J. is the occupant of the house on Pleasant Street that’s across from the Chrysalis Preschool.”
“You said the house wasn’t near no preschool.”
* * *
J.J. lets his dogs out of the basement at night, a strategy to alert him to intruders, no doubt. However not a single dog sounds the alarm when I climb in through the window, which of course is not standard procedure. Their tongues greet me, long stretches of saliva catching my fingers. The floorboards bend under the weight of them. I see now that what I took for wood siding on the hallway walls is in fact the swipe after swipe of unwashed dog. Although I managed to enter without recourse to a flashlight, the dogs are difficult to tell apart. Waiting until dawn failed to bring more light into this home. I suddenly remember the therapist’s warning, “Any further contact with animal hoarders puts you at risk.”