For the Love of a Dog
I meet Marcus at a minor league game: Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp versus Kissimmee Cobras. The brightly-lit stadium a stone’s throw from the St. Johns River has been renovated to the old-timey feel of a Northern ballpark, but its faux brick and imitation gas lanterns make it more theme park than Fenway. The craft beer is nice and Marcus is excited about the tapas. He drones on about meats-on-sticks while I watch his arm and salivate. Nearly a dozen Tinder dates in half as many months and they have all ended deliciously. I expect Marcus will be more of the same.
“Seriously, the flavors really pop.” Marcus brandishes a Thai curry chicken skewer. “Try a bite.”
He waves the meat in my face and I want to attack him right there.
“I’m a vegetarian,” I reply.
“Oh,” he says. “I didn’t mean to offend you. I’ll go back. I think they have tofu.”
I tell him I’m not actually hungry, though I’m ravenous. Marcus buys us beer and we sit down to watch the game. My stomach growls and I feel lightheaded. I’ve spent the last week sneaking into an abandoned school on my way home from work. Bats have roosted in the rafters and I’ve been picking them off one by one, but all the bats in the world would never equal the satiation of a single human being.
On the field, number five has more meat than the others. He’d be a meal you’d have on a Saturday with not much to do and nowhere to be.
The first base coach is in his fifties. Plenty of meat. How would that work? I haven’t dated a guy beyond thirty since the turn last year. How would my appetite change in the coming decades? Would I get older? Would I even live to transition to older men?
“Grace? You okay?” Marcus finishes his beer and stands up.
“I’m good. I’m sorry.” I smile and try to pay attention. “I’m not much company tonight. It’s been a long week. Here, let me get this round.” I take his empty cup and head toward the concession.
After the game, a bubblegum country duo butchers a rendition of “This Land is Your Land,” complete with red, white, and blue pyrotechnics. Then Marcus suggests we walk along the river. I’m a few inches taller than him so I’m glad I didn’t wear heels. He’s not a bad-looking guy. Sandy brown hair, glasses, slumps a little when he stands. A nor’easter has moved in so we take the ferry to the Southbank to stay out of the wind.
“You’re near the river, right?” he asks.
“Yes, it’s a cluster of townhouses right by the old church.”
“The church with the chimney swifts that come back each year?” he asks.
I nod in reply. In just a few weeks, the small birds will make their annual return there.
“I love that area. Great tapas at that Middle Eastern place on the square.”
“What’s with you and the appetizers?” I ask, and he looks wounded so I change the subject. “Where do you live?”
“At the beach.”
Of course he does. Now he’ll start talking about how much he loves to paddleboard.
“So what do you do when you aren’t building websites?” I ask.
“I’m a glassblower. And I have a German shepherd named T-Bone. I taught him to pick up trash off the beach.”
“How old is T-Bone?”
“Seven. Do you have pets?”
I tell him I’ve been thinking about getting a dog. “I just worry that maybe I work too much.” I am an editorial assistant at a regional publishing house. The pay is crap, the hours are long, and we’re always on deadline. But something about the translucent, eager eyes of the receptionist reminds me of a half-brother from a life that’s long dead. That and there’s always a plate of fresh scones. They were my absolute favorite before the turn and while they do nothing for my appetite now, I still love the taste.
“Couldn’t you bring the pup to work?”
“Our art director brings her dogs. I guess she has to since we work like 12-hour days.”
“Take the leap.” He grabs my hand. “I couldn’t imagine life without T-Bone.”
An hour later, Marcus is on top of me. We’re in his dingy beach flat above a garage. It smells like patchouli and wet dog. A knock-off Navajo rug hangs on the wall. Fleet Foxes play in the background and T-Bone stares at us through the screen door.
Marcus runs his hands down my back. It would feel nice if I weren’t so famished. I’m tired enough to have sex without the whole murder thing. But I’m hungry. It’s why I suffered through nine innings, a walk along the river, and a 45-minute drive out to the beach. Marcus kisses my neck. I’m ready to gnaw off his ear. He takes off his clothes. He has a long torso like a flank steak and crazy large calves. He hadn’t seemed this solid in his khakis and button-down. Now’s my chance, but T-Bone is whimpering from the porch.
“You too.” Marcus laughs.
“What?” I say.
“Strip,” he says.
I pull off my sundress.
Marcus is close enough to taste. Salty skin. Citrus shampoo. A faint smell of smoke.
The dog scratches at the screen.
“No, T-Bone. Stay.” Marcus’s eyes meet mine. “T-Bone’s jealous. Let’s go to the bedroom.”
I grab my wadded-up dress. My knife is concealed in a pocket in the folds of loose fabric.
In the bedroom, Marcus turns on a lava lamp. We both get in bed. He takes a glass pipe from the nightstand drawer, loads a bowl, lights it, and takes a pull.
“You want a little?” he asks, as he breathes out the smoke.
He inches toward me. “Makes the sex better. And we can take a shower after. It lasts forever when you’re stoned.”
My stomach lets out a volcanic rumble and I pull the sheet tight around me.
“Trust me, the last thing I need is the munchies,” I say.
“Don’t tell me you’re one of those girls who doesn’t eat. I like a woman with an appetite.”
I can feel the weight of the knife in the dress bunched up on the floor.
He sets the bowl back on the dresser. “You shouldn’t be self-conscious. You have nothing to worry about. I knew you were out of my league the minute you showed up at the ballpark.”
“I’m good with my body,” I say, a little irritated, though I feel like I’m all knees and elbows as I fold into myself. “I just don’t feel like getting stoned.”
“You hear that?” he asks.
All I can hear is my stomach. “Hear what?”
T-Bone comes into the room.
“How’d you get in, bud?” Marcus asks.
Marcus gets out of bed and walks into the living room.
“Damn dog just chewed a giant hole through the screen door. Landlord’s gonna kill me,” he calls from the other room.
The bedroom, which is covered in an inch of dust and littered with a week’s work of laundry, leads me to believe Marcus won’t do much about the door.
“I’m ordering a pizza,” he says. “Just veggie, right? And maybe some chocolate chip cookies. You’re not vegan, are you?”
“Not vegan,” I say. T-Bone plops down on my lap and heaves a sigh. I pet him.
Marcus comes back. “I’m sorry I got distracted.” He crawls back in bed. “T-Bone, get down.”
T-Bone growls low and settles in against my legs. The dog is a warm pile of fur and his heart races against my thigh. He nuzzles then nips my hand.
“T-Bone, what’s gotten into you?” Marcus asks. “He’s never this clingy.”
“He’s fine.” I’m becoming resigned to an evening that probably won’t end in a feeding other than pizza.
“Well, we were in the middle of something?” Marcus moves a little closer.
“Do you mind?” I ask. “I feel like maybe the moment’s gone.” Things feel complicated. I can’t kill Marcus. Not tonight. Not in front of his dog.
Marcus looks disappointed as he flips on the television and smokes another bowl. I take a hit. My mind is fuzzy and I need food. Two weeks ago, I ravaged a telemarketer and left him in the shallows near Reena’s Redneck Yacht Club, a desolate dive bar on a nameless Northside inlet. Reena’s mean as a snake but for some reason has taken a liking to me. Maybe it’s because I tip well. Either way, the place is far enough out in the sticks so no one notices when the crabs finish off whatever’s left of my dates.
We go to bed after the pizza. Marcus falls asleep in less than five minutes. He’s on his back snoring and I think about how easy things would be if it weren’t for T-Bone. I’ll eat Marcus in the morning, when the damn dog is outside. I snuggle close to the German shepherd between us and drift off.
The next morning, I awake in a haze. The dog, still asleep beside me, kicks and I wonder at his dreams. Is his appetite for squirrels the same as my appetite for men? I have a type: single, no family in the near vicinity, in tech or telecom. Marcus is my third web developer. Will I move on to older men or to women, even, if the world runs out of Marcuses? I could never eat a child. Or a dog. I hug T-Bone and he jolts awake.
“Don’t worry.” I scratch behind his ears. “I didn’t eat your owner.”
I pick up my dress, fold it neatly, and then decide not to worry about it and put it back on. I pull my knife out my pocket. It’s a bowie knife with a polished silver handle. A gift from my grandmother. I brush my teeth with Marcus’s toothbrush and head downstairs. T-Bone follows me.
Marcus is in the garage below, its door open like a cavity. He wears gloves and safety glasses in front of a furnace. T-Bone wags his tail when he sees his owner.
I wave a little and Marcus glances up from his work.
“You want to try?” he asks.
I shake my head.
“What do you make?” I ask.
“Mostly pipes for head shops and stuff. I’m making these globes for my mom. She’ll hang them all around her yard.”
I wince at the mention of a mom who will surely miss her son.
He holds one end of a steel pipe. There is a ball of molten glass on the pipe’s other end. He moves the pipe into what looks like a furnace.
“The furnace is actually called a crucible,” he says. “It keeps it soft so I can shape it.” He pulls out the pipe and dips the glass into a steel bowl full of crushed colored glass and returns it to the crucible. Next he rolls it on a graphite surface, which he says is a marver that distributes the heat evenly. “It’s all about symmetry,” he says without looking up.
After that he places the pipe on a stand, and rolls and blows into the pipe’s end simultaneously. Once the glass takes the shape of a small globe, he cuts off the end with what looks like a long pair of tweezers and ribbons the glass’s edge at the tip. He taps the end of the blowing pipe to remove the excess glass and then sets the globe in an industrial oven. He works with such confidence, a part of me wants to shatter every piece he’s ever made.
“It’ll cool down over the next couple hours,” he says. “Come on. Let’s take T-Bone for a walk.”
“I can’t,” I say. “I have some weekend work I need to get ahead of.”
“But you can watch T-Bone do his trick and then we’ll get breakfast. There’s a great vegetarian spot up the road. Seriously, the best quinoa you’ve had in your life.”
I’ve never tasted quinoa and have no plans to start now.
“A quick walk,” I say. “But I have to skip out on breakfast.”
We walk along the beach; my red dress fluid in the breeze. We talk while T-Bone fetches empty water bottles, a discarded bag of Cheetos, and a broken Frisbee, depositing each find into a nearby trashcan. Every time, Marcus gives him a treat. We make tentative plans to watch the chimney swifts the following weekend.
That night I head to Reena’s alone. The place began as a double-wide. Reena’s second husband welded shipping containers onto each end so now it’s three awkward rooms, the left room nearly consumed by a pool table, the right filled with tattered vinyl barstools. A place that’s been operating without a liquor license since the 1960s. The Jell-O shots are a dollar and you can drink domestics all night and still leave with a twenty dollar bar tab. Reena’s washing glasses at the bar in the center when I belly up. She used to be pretty but life has worn her down like a used penny. Now, she has acne-scarred skin, brittle gray hair, and yellowed lines along her mouth.
“Whiskey,” I say.
She pours a double without asking.
“How’s Brandon?” she asks.
“Your boyfriend? The telemarketer who told me I need to put all my stock in bitcoin? Like I got any money around here?”
“Moved back to Indiana. Homesick, I guess,” I say.
“That’s a shame. You two seemed to have a spark,” she replies.
“Slow. Jerrold and Bunny had a fight and she pulled a gun. Scared off the regulars for a few days. I swear this place would be fine if people just left their damn weapons at home.”
“You should put up a sign.”
“I don’t need a sign. I got a pistol behind the bar. Next person that pulls any shit gets it from me.”
“I’ll be on my best behavior,” I say.
Reena smiles but it fades as Jerrold and Clive, Reena’s boyfriend, walk in. Jerrold with his tail between his legs and Clive somber as a peacemaker. The three begin chatting after Jerrold apologizes, swearing on Bunny’s life that the couple won’t fight in the bar again.
I don’t have to worry about messy relationship drama. Not after that night, hammered at Crocodiles in Nassau, when I made out with a firefighter and woke up the next morning all pukey and achy, with a large gash on my thigh. I figured it was just me being clumsy. For a while, I worried I might be pregnant. I never got his number and lost track of him the minute I boarded the ship the next morning. But then when I got home, I couldn’t shake feeling bad. It felt like the flu. All fever and ache. The wound on my thigh was slow to heal. I worried it was infected so I got a tetanus shot. Then I had what felt like mono. The doctors couldn’t diagnose me. I scoured the internet, convinced myself it was lupus. Something autoimmune.
When I started eating raw meat and then picking off small mammals and birds, I knew it probably wasn’t lupus. After I felt the irrevocable craving for human flesh, I thought back to the firefighter. A memory buried so deep. We had been kissing on the bathroom floor of some hotel room. The dirty shower curtain. The white towel hanging on the back of the door. My blood spilled across the yellow tile. I went down a rabbit hole on the internet one night and discovered I was a part of a growing class. Apparently, zombies were using dating apps to pick off people in countries like Turkey and Brazil. Big cities, usually. Ankara. São Paulo. I was so hungry I downloaded Tinder that night. Now, I’m closing in on my eleventh kill.
Marcus texts me midway through the week.
Coming to your neck of the woods Saturday. See the chimney swifts with me.
Sounds good. Pack a bag. Maybe you can crash at my place. I doubt myself for a minute and press send.
Sounds great. J. Can I bring T-Bone?
My landlord isn’t crazy about dogs. I text this even though Sarah has four boxers and occasionally tags me on Facebook when she sees a rescue.
Please? He’s been acting strange all week and I don’t want to leave him alone. Besides, I think he misses you.
Crap. Maybe just this once. See you Saturday. 😉
It’s a damn date. I don’t want a date. I want dinner.
Every year, hundreds of chimney swifts return to a particular church a half a block from my house. They fly in at dusk and this year we watch while the black-bellied birds make their descent. The church was built in the 1880s. Who knows how long the birds have migrated here? What primal instinct brings them home again and again? I shudder at my own instincts. I smell Marcus’s new shampoo. Tea tree oil. I smell T-Bone’s damp fur. He dances in circles as the birds fly high above. Later, he wanders off into my neighbor’s overgrown side yard as we walk back to my place. He returns calmer now that the birds are gone as I unlock the door. Marcus and I climb the stairs to my bedroom. T-Bone follows.
“Not this time.” Marcus leads T-Bone into my black and white tiled kitchen and blocks a way out with dining room chairs. T-Bone pants and paces. Marcus returns to the stairwell and we ascend.
In the bedroom, he pulls a box from his pocket. “I have something for you.”
It’s a pendant necklace.
“You made this?” I ask.
“The pendant is Pyrex. You can shower with it. Beat it up and it shouldn’t break.”
He fastens the clasp and the small cylindrical burst of yellows, blues, and reds glitter like a geode cold against my skin. We get undressed. I draw the blinds, click off the nightstand light, and pull back the chartreuse green quilt. We get into bed.
Ten minutes later, Marcus is telling me I’m the most beautiful woman he’s even been with. The entire time, T-Bone has been barking in the kitchen. I hear the dog trying to knock over the chairs. Soon he’ll be clicking his nails up the hardwood stairs.
“Get behind me,” I say. I have to move fast.
We change positions. When Marcus begins to climax, I grip the cold silver handle of my blade under the mattress, but as I’m about to make my move, T-Bone bursts through the door. Light from the hallway spills into the room. In less than a second, I’m face to face with the dog’s baring teeth as he lunges toward me. I nick the dog’s leg enough that he backs away.
“What the hell?” Marcus’s voice is pocked with anger.
I realize Marcus hasn’t seen the knife so I slip it back under the mattress.
“Seriously, get out.” Marcus jumps up and flips on the light. He grabs the dog’s collar and puts him outside then closes the door. Back in bed, he reaches for me. “Did he hurt you?”
“I’m fine,” I say. “He’s just protective.”
“What’s he protecting me from?”
I’m so hungry I can’t think straight.
“Next date’s my choice,” I say. “I know a little bar near the marsh. You can’t bring T-Bone, though. No dogs.”
Later, when Marcus is asleep, I get dressed and walk downstairs. I open the front door and T-Bone follows. On the porch, we sit together in the chilly October midnight. T-Bone cowers a little when I reach out to pet him. After a while, I manage to rest my hand on a tuft of fur along his spine. A few minutes later, he rustles into the bushes, returns with a dead chimney swift, and drops it at my feet. I pick up the bird. It’s beautiful and delicate with a small head shaped like an owl’s. I tear into the bird’s face and its rawness runs through me like a tendril of electricity.
It’s karaoke night at Reena’s Redneck Yacht Club and Clive is the evening’s DJ. He plays a revolving door of Skynyrd and CCR with the occasional Zeppelin or Cream peppered in. Clive hates country. I finish my second beer as Jerrold finishes “Gimme Three Steps” when a frazzled-looking Marcus walks through the door.
“I need to take that dog to a shrink,” he says as he takes a seat next to me.
“They have Prozac for dogs,” I say. “You didn’t bring him, did you?”
“Of course not. He’s just been tearing up my furniture all week. Who knows what I’ll come home to tonight?”
“If you go home tonight.” I smile. “Can somebody check in on him if you stay at my place?”
“Yeah, I’ll figure something out. You’re wearing the pendant.” He reaches out and touches the glass around my neck. “It looks good on you.”
I lean over and kiss him. “Let’s get you a drink.”
Reena comes in from taking out the trash. She lights a cigarette. “Who’s the fresh meat, Grace?”
I shoot Reena a look and smile so my voice brightens. “Reena, meet Marcus.”
“Good to meet you?” Marcus says. He’s out of place here.
In my old life, I would have been out of place, too. Somehow, though, everyone here senses my brokenness and considers me one of their own.
Several beers and a couple of shots later, Marcus is telling me a story about one Fourth of July at his grandparents’ house.
“Gramps was in Korea. He had this homemade firecracker he called the widow-maker and he let me light the fuse,” Marcus says. “Something went wrong and it burned off my eyebrows and some of my hair.”
“That’s insane,” I say. “We were never allowed to play with fireworks growing up.”
“How many brothers and sisters did you have?” he asks.
I take a drink and ignore his question. “So the fireworks. Did you go to the hospital?”
“Nah, but it was hard spending the summer as the bald kid with no eyebrows. Like being thirteen isn’t hard enough. But it got me into glassblowing. And the hair eventually grew back.”
“So nearly burning your face off made you want to play with fire more?” I ask.
“Absolutely,” he says. “It became an element I needed to harness.” Marcus stands up and cracks his knuckles. “Let’s do this.” He reaches for my hand.
“Do what?” I ask.
“I’m too drunk for karaoke,” I say. I’m too drunk for anything. My knife is in my pocket. My plan had been to wait until last call and then take Marcus behind Clive’s van while he and Reena screwed in her RV up near the road but it’s too much to think about at this point. I follow Marcus to the microphone and then he trips over Clive’s steel-toed boot.
“Watch it, you little fucker.” Clive, who is six four, covered in tattoos, and works as a bouncer at the roughest strip club in town, is never in the mood for drunks. “Grace, I never have seen you with a guy who can hold his liquor.” He stares down Marcus as I stay quiet.
“I was second chair cello in high school.” Marcus tries to look Clive in the eyes and the effort seems to make him sway. “I’ve got this, man.”
“You don’t,” Clive replies.
“C’mon, buddy.” Marcus sounds like he’s begging.
“I’m not your fuckin’ buddy.” Clive crosses his arms. “You gonna get this guy off my back, Grace?”
“Just one song,” I say as I hand Clive a five-dollar bill.
“What song, asshole?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. You’re liable to get your ass kicked with a song like that.”
“Trust me, stage presence, I promise.” Marcus winks at Clive.
But Marcus is off pitch and off beat. People are paying attention, and not in a good way.
“You sound like a cat caught in a fan belt.” Clive reaches to cut the song.
“It’s time to go,” I say, as I pull at Marcus’s arm. My knife open in my other hand.
“Gracie,” Marcus brushes my hand away. “I’m just having a little fun.”
My knife breaks his skin. A gash begins to gush.
“Oh shit. She’s got a knife!” Clive yells toward the bar.
“Not here, Grace. Get out and don’t come back,” Reena’s voice is steady and low. I know her next move will be to reach for the pistol. Clive pushes us out of the bar before that happens.
Outside, I look down and see the blade in my hand. What did I do? Marcus’s arm trails blood in the pale blue light.
Marcus holds his arm in shock. “What the fuck, Grace? I need stitches. Why would you…” Even though he’s livid, he avoids looking at me before he turns to walk back to his truck.
I smell the copper. My mind clears with the same peace that happens after a car accident when you’re mired in chaos but you know you’re alive. I follow him and stab him in the side. He turns back and stares at me stone-faced before falling to the ground. I devour him at the edge of the salt marsh. Something inside me shifts. It’s subtle at first then raging like a current. A rush seeps in and takes over as my senses heighten. I feel the rhythm of the marsh: skittering invertebrate, the occasional flick of a redfish tail, the slow reedy lull of the thick cord grass that surrounds me. The sounds pulsate like a heartbeat. I lick Marcus’s bones almost clean. It takes until sunrise when the crabs will clean up most of what’s left. The salt and tide will take care of the rest. A bright red sunrise burns across the horizon.
When I’m finished, I leave a twenty-dollar bill on Clive’s windshield and walk back to my car. As I reach for the handle, a quiet click stops me in my tracks. It’s the sound of a fingernail on glass. I shudder and think for a moment I’ve been caught. But the click is too familiar and not quite human. I follow the sound to Marcus’s truck. T-Bone paws against the passenger side window. Guilt shivers down my spine at the sight of the dog. I take Marcus’s keys and open the door. T-Bone won’t make eye contact. He just jumps out of the cab and follows me to my car. We get in and drive northwest toward another coast. Maybe Homer, Alaska where the sand is black and the nights are long.