No one’s been bitten. No lawns dirtied. No one’s even seen one. But the house has begun to smell. You can smell it from the street.

“Keeps them locked inside,” says a man holding a child’s backpack. He watches from his driveway as I approach the house. “Give my neighbor a good knock.”

He means the door, of course, a good knock on his neighbor’s door, which is my intention. However, before making contact, I like to review the Rules of Procedural Policy. Follow these and everything stays under control. Number one, register all complaints (check). Number two, question complainants for just cause (check). Number three, investigate site for possible occupation of domestic animals in excess of code. I evaluate the externals. Landscaping kept up, minimum peeling paint, sinuous eave intact above the front door. The house is what those in the business call a starter, a couple’s first home. Usually the first baby’s born here and not long after the couple moves out due to space issues. What those in the business don’t mention is sometimes the couple’s finished long before a baby’s born. In my case, there was a baby. But it’s not the look of this house that concerns me. It’s the smell.

I knock on the front door. “Hello?” I say. “Anybody home?”

Barks blast from inside. The front door shudders from collected canines hurling against it. I cover my ears, standard procedure. More typical, of course, is cat collecting. People miscalculate the degree of feline unfriendliness and, especially if housebound or forgotten by friends and family, will take in one after another in the misapprehension that the more cats you have the less you will feel the indifference of the world.

I knock again, a good knock. A little door set inside the front door opens at eye level. I had not previously noted this little door and now am on guard. “Precinct Manager Deedra Stero, East Valley Animal Control.” I put my badge to the screen of the little door.

The individual says something inaudible in response.

“You’ll have to quiet them,” I shout. Quieting dogs takes time so I turn to face Pleasant Street. On the opposite side is the Chrysalis Preschool. Naptime over, children scuff past their teacher through the bright painted door. One little girl stops to braid her hair. When I noticed on the requisition that this house was on Pleasant Street, I was reluctant to take the call. But Pedro was on assignment for our supervisor, so that left only me to respond.

An audible reduction has been made in barking levels, demonstrating cooperation on the part of the individual inside. I turn back to the house.

Enter site in question only upon notification of headquarters, rule number four. I get Pedro on the line. “Requesting permission to enter.”

“What your eval?” Pedro says. “Need backup? Cages? Prods?” When I don’t answer, he says, “Nobody was here when I get back except Goose in sanitation. He say you took a code 5844 on Pleasant Street. You don’t take calls on Pleasant Street.”

“What were my options? The complainant threatened to call another precinct.”

“You near that preschool?”

The last child trudges off with her mother. Letting loose a big yawn, the teacher scans the empty playground then strolls back inside. I don’t recognize her. She must be new, like the high fence securing the preschool. “No preschool in sight,” I say and get off the line. Just then the door opens and I am hit with it, like when you lift a lid off banked garbage. An individual, tall, fit, clothed in denim and lace, stands in the doorway. “The neighbors are concerned,” I say.

“That’s awful nice.” Though it could go either way, I will identify him as male.

“Their concern is with the smell. My concern,” I say, “is with the welfare of the dogs.”

He opens the door wider and extends a hand, a welcoming hand. “See for yourself.” A smile. “If you can stand the smell.” His ponytail sweeps side to side as he inhales the air.

Covering my nose as if to sneeze, I say, “According to county records, a person by the name of J.J. applied for a dog license at this address. Is that you?”

When he nods, I say, “How should I call you?”

“J.J.’s good.”

“J.J.,” I say, walking across the threshold into his house. With a brief touch at my shoulder, J.J. directs me down a hallway deep and tunnel-dark. Flies list overhead. Off the hallway, windows blush behind pink sheets. I reach for the wall to brace myself and hear the faint but steady slow pant of dogs. It’s coming from behind a closed door, the type that leads to basements, which are atypical in ranch-style homes. “They down there?”

J.J.’s hand comes up and pats mine, which is also a kind of patting of the doorframe upon which it rests. “Out of harm’s way,” he says.

J.J. continues down the hallway. When he reaches the kitchen door, he turns to me with another smile. This time I smile back. I excel at sitting down with these people and having a heart-to-heart. “Thank you for allowing me into your home, J.J,” I say. That’s rule number five, conduct oneself without judgment. This is key. The process is impersonal. Take J.J. Though he is wide through the hips, he is broad-featured and the body is muscular. He is…what? Oh, why do people muddy the water? J.J. is male, and I will conduct myself in accordance with my initial ascertainment.

J.J. offers a chair, which is situated beneath a dust-coated skylight. On the table, silk roses perk from a pickle jar placed on a doily. I adjust my radio belt before I sit. From another chair, he lifts a small dozing dog, some blend of the popular miniature breeds filling our shelters. Consumed by maternal urges, a person will adopt a miniature as infant substitute. Enthusiasm is tested when the new owner discovers the dog has defecated in her handbag.

“My latest conquest.” J. J. sets the dog on his lap, where it gnaws a patch of white lace along his zipper.

“How many would you say?”

“Conquests?” J.J. looks up, blinking.

“Dogs,” I say.

“Oh.” Silence. Then, “Who’s counting?”

“For one, the County,” I say. “Though there is no canine numerical limit by dwelling—”

“There ought to be!”

“Well, J.J., there is a total number of registered complaints. This house is one complaint short of a forcible reduction.”

“What are they saying?” He grins.

I refer to the file. “The following observation was made on Monday, June 15th, from an individual residing at the corner of 1666 NE 138th Street and Pleasant Street—”

“That’s that fellow next door.”

“‘It’s packed with dogs in there,’” I read the complaint aloud. “‘I don’t like dogs suffering. Some nights my wife cries herself to sleep just thinking on it.’”

“They should look in their own backyards,” J.J. says. “The dears.”

“To be fair, there’s no denying the smell—”

“Not so bad once you’re in?”

“Neighbors report never having seen a single canine out of doors.”

“House trained, every last hound.”

“And the waste?”

He commences to sing, high and flat, “All God’s creatures got waste.”

“May I make a friendly recommendation?” I say.

“Think I’ll die in here and they’ll eat me? You read about that.”

“Do your own reductions, one hound a day. Take it to the shelter or give it to friends.”

“Friends?” J.J. looks at me, longer than I’d deem necessary. He scoops up the dog on his lap. “Here.”

“That’s the idea.”

“Here.” He’s pushing it at me. “Here.”

Rule number six, avoid direct contact with animals.

“I cannot act as intermediary. You’ll have to take it to the shelter yourself.”

“Such an intrepid woman as yourself must have offspring.”

I reveal nothing. The personal is out.

“Have a heart.” He sets the animal on my lap. I look down and see that it is not one of the miniature breeds. It’s a puppy, the tender humid scent pushing up through the other smell.

“I can’t,” I say. “I’m not allowed.”

“No?” Into the puppy’s ear J.J. whispers, his fastened silky hair cascading across my thigh.

“It’s not County,” I say. “It’s my ex. He forbade me to bring more animals to our kid.”

“Ow,” he says, scooting his chair closer, “what did you bring to your child?” He pats my leg kindly. “Tell me everything.”

“J.J., I brought her a kitten, the whole litter as matters go, a dog, purebred, a conversant bird, a snake.”

“A snake!” J.J. covers his eyes and winces.

Clarification is needed. “Pets are known to help children get over a split,” I say. “But my ex complained about taking care of them.”

“You poor creature!” J.J. says, “You just couldn’t stop bringing them home.” His shoulders quiver. His mouth spreads wide on big yellow teeth. He is laughing himself to bits.

Ha ha ha.

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.

“You.”

“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.”

“What?”

“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.”

* * *

One) Debriefing.

“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?”

“Negative.”

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.

“Negative.”

“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.”

The dogs climb over each other now, the smallest leaping from shoulder to shoulder and me, amid the shifting shapes, the panting, me, in the middle, this bitch one in the middle. I shoo and kick at them to drive them off. Dog after dog funnels into the kitchen. Alone in the hallway now, I edge toward the basement door. Preparing myself for the door coming open, for the descent of the stairs, for the…skritch-skritch. What? My stomach tightens. Something—no, someone—is scratching on the other side of the door. What sounded like one lone scratch is in fact soft flesh tapping and sliding down the wood. Smoothly the knob turns in my hand. A little push and I’m in. Except that I’m not. The door’s locked. Why is it still locked when all the dogs are out? Why keep in a dog? Unless, of course, it’s not a dog. I drop to the floor and prepare a few words to say through the slender crack beneath the door when a long hair wraps around my tongue. I hook it off with my nail. The strand is as fine as the hair on the head of a child. A sob rises in me.

My radio goes off. “Stero, where you at? Come in. Will you come in, mujer?”

“Pedro,” I whisper into my radio.

The overhead goes on. I get to my hands and knees. The dogs scramble out of the kitchen, jamming up the hallway. At the other end stands J.J. in a nubby robe, hand on the light switch, squinting. “Ms. Stero?”

The scratching starts again on the other side of the basement door. “J.J.,” I say, rising, radio slipping out of my hand. “On behalf of East Valley Animal Control, I demand you open that door.”

He frowns. “Ah, why?”

“I have reason to believe you hide someone.” I dangle the long human hair between my finger and thumb. It catches the light like spun gold. “Is it a child? It’s policy to ask.”

J.J.’s brow has formed a deep and guilty v. “How did you get in here?” He notices the window ajar and says, “Is that legal? I mean, don’t you need a warrant or something?”

“A child is missing.” I clasp the hair to my chest. “A little girl. Virginia was at the preschool when someone took her.” A couple of dogs tilt their heads at me.

J.J. comes on so fast the dogs separate before him in that way you picture from the Bible. As he passes me, he takes my hand. His eyes flash. The dogs close back in, getting underfoot as he leads me down the hallway. “Ms. Stero, I have been patient. I made polite talk. But, come on, you’re breaking the law.” He lifts the latch on the front door. “Time to go.”

“Not alone.” I yank my hand out of his and wade back through the dogs to the basement door. But J.J. catches me by the shoulder. I knock him off with a good shove. Arms pinwheeling, he topples back, grabbing the doorknob to brace his fall, which inadvertently throws the front door wide open. Dogs blast out the door, daft canine propulsion into the pale morning light. They scatter like jacks across the yard. A pit bull eases onto its haunches and drops a pile big as a melon onto the neighbor’s lawn.

J.J. clambers to his feet. I turn to see him brushing aside his blond hair sprung from its fastener. He inserts a key into the lock. “You missed one,” he says, red faced. He pulls open the basement door. I hesitate and squint back out his front door. Across the street the teacher skips out of the Chrysalis Preschool, cheering on the loosed dogs. All this fresh air hovering on the threshold, and I can’t get a decent breath.

The spill of daylight terminates at J.J.’s slippers, where the basement door looms open. I march through that door but halt at the top step on account of the stench. Shadows cast by a bulb swaying on a cord contour the dirt floor below. I go down. Planked pine pops and snaps with each step into this space dug out from the earth, more cooling room than basement. Sweat trickles beneath my bra. Dragging my hand along the damp wall that seems to hum, my fingers launch indolent flies. Smell has taken on a kind of pneumatic shape, scorching the hairs in my nostrils. Lining every wall are aquamarine garbage bags, three bags deep, knotted in neat bows. I taste supper at the back of my throat. Brow sweat cascades my palsied hands as I loosen the knot on one of the bags. A suck of breath. The bag blooms open. Lumped, coiled, and crumbled dog feces white-laced with mold fill the bag. I scan the other bags and recognize the outlines of dog waste in each.

What a smell. I gaze back down into the open bag and inhale.

Exhale.

Inhale.

J.J. is right. Not so bad. Even smells a bit fruity, marvelous as turned soil.

“Knock yourself out.”

I had not heard J.J. come down and quickly try to close the bag.

“Don’t be shy, Ms. Stero,” he says. “We’re all god’s creatures.”

His arms spread to encompass a long line of ceramic water bowls and a carpet of dog beds ordered and numbered. “Fifteen bowls, thirty-eight beds, sixty-six bags of poop.” His eyes shift. “But who’s counting?”

I follow his gaze to a kennel nestled in the middle of the dog beds, the puppy panting inside.

“Poor baby,” I say, dropping to my knees before the kennel and reaching through the open door. “Where’s Mommy?”

The puppy licks my knuckle, and I wiggle the tip of my finger into its mouth. “Ouch!” I say, looking up at J.J. “He bites!”

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