City of Dogs
by Nick Pipitone
Cindy parked her work truck in the shade by a McDonald’s and took a big bite out of her Quarter Pounder. Her lunch breaks were always interrupted by phone calls, the endless calls from dispatchers. Today was no different.
When her phone rang, she turned down the Brad Paisely song on her radio.
“Hey, sunshine,” said Marcus, the dispatcher. “Feel like catching any more dogs today?”
It wasn’t the call Cindy wanted to get. But at least it wasn’t the call, the one she constantly feared getting.
“Not really, asshole,” Cindy replied. “Where am I going?”
“It’s not a pleasant one. Another guy got attacked. They said a Rottweiler ran him down. It’s right by the cemetery at Romine and Malcolm X Boulevard.”
What’s the point? Cindy thought. By the time she got there, the dog would be long gone. And she would circle around the neighborhood looking for it. She’d been doing this job for a year now, and it often seemed pointless. But it paid her bills.
“I’m on it.” She placed the half-eaten hamburger back in its wrapper and started the engine. At the very least, she could look for other strays in the neighborhood. There was no shortage of strays in southern Dallas these days.
As she drove through the streets, she wondered how her city had become this bad. There were overgrown lawns, boarded-up houses, trash in the streets, and the dogs. The dogs terrorized the city blocks, making it their playground.
Cindy wanted to be a veterinarian. Most people were scared of the dogs, but she usually felt bad for them. Becoming a vet, though, meant more school, and it was time and debt she couldn’t afford. Besides, she had Daryl to look out for. God knows Daryl needed someone to look out for him.
A small group of people gathered around the ambulance, and Cindy parked her truck nearby. A Hispanic man lay in a gurney, and he had deep cuts and bite marks on his legs. She walked through the crowd to the back of the ambulance.
“A Rottweiler. That’s what happened,” the young male EMT said. “He had to climb on top of a car to get away. Still bit him a few times.”
What kind of life is this? To go out of for a pack of smokes and get chased down by a rabid dog.
“I’ll scan the neighborhood.” Then Cindy turned to the victim and said, “Sorry about this, sir. We’re making the rounds. If you see something like this—”
“Call you?” he interrupted. Then he laughed cynically, as he took off his Cowboys hat and wiped his brow. “You know how many times I’ve called? Nobody comes. And it doesn’t matter if you catch the damned thing. There are dozens of other dogs out there you won’t catch.”
The EMT chuckled and closed the doors. Cindy didn’t have to say anything; the man was right. The dogs ruled this part of the city.
“Do your job,” an old woman said as Cindy passed by. The woman sneered when she saw Cindy’s gray Animal Control uniform. “Damn city is going to hell.”
Cindy climbed back into the work truck. She wanted to call Marcus and tell him to shove it for sending her on this goose chase. But that’s what she got paid for, however miserable it was.
She turned the country radio station back to full blast and cruised the neighborhood looking for dogs, keeping her phone in her front pocket. She hoped Daryl would call.
* * *
Daryl was a good kid. He really was. That’s what Cindy repeated to herself in her darkest moments, when she hoped he would come home and get clean.
She had given birth to him when she was seventeen years old. He was the product of an intense affair with a boy she had met in high school who promised her the world. But once Daryl was born, the man disappeared into the streets. He was never in Daryl’s life.
It was Cindy’s day off, and she flicked through the TV stations for something to watch. The news coverage about the stray dog crisis was unrelenting, and she ignored it. Instead, she settled on a reality show called Home Makeover.
In the show, happy, beautiful couples hired a handsome man named Jake to redo their homes and make their dreams come true. At the end, they showed the couples side by side with wide smiles, talking about how their new life was beginning.
Cindy wanted that.
She hadn’t heard from Daryl in three days. Only God knew what he was doing, what abandoned house he was squatting in, shooting dope with his girlfriend, Tammy.
When did it all go wrong?
She talked to Marcus, the dispatcher, about it often. He suggested she go to Nar-Anon meetings, where she could share her pain with other parents of addicts. But she wanted a quick fix; she didn’t want to “detach with love” as Marcus suggested. She just wanted everything to be okay.
The loneliness hit her the hardest on her days off, when she had nothing to do and no place to be. She checked her OkCupid profile. Many of the messages were from horn-dog men looking to get in her pants. Sometimes she let them, just to feel wanted. Other times, it made her sick to her stomach.
A text message popped up from a co-worker. “Can you cover for me today?” it read. She had nowhere else to be. She had nothing else to do. She might as well work.
* * *
The sun was setting over the cookie-cutter block of rowhomes in southern Dallas as Cindy finished her workday. The streets were empty and eerie, because people were afraid to leave their houses. Sometimes Cindy could hear the barking outside as she lay in bed at night. It reminded her of wolves howling at the moon. Her neighborhood was a wilderness.
A month ago, a pack of strays had killed a woman. Five of them attacked her and ripped her skin away. The reports said her body showed more than 100 bites. The victim’s sister told the newspapers they “chewed on her like a steak.”
As Cindy grabbed her mail, she saw her neighbor Demetrius sitting on his steps with a beer and a smoke. It was his usual routine after a long day of cutting grass.
“Hey there, Cindy. Anything exciting today?”
Demetrius wasn’t like her other neighbors. Most people hated her for working for Animal Control. But she’d known Demetrius for years, and he didn’t hold it against her.
“Same old. Some poor guy was attacked by the Oakland Cemetery.”
Demetrius shook his head and laughed. “You know, they don’t have this problem in the suburbs. I’m over there every day, and it’s nothin’ but white fences and clean streets.”
He finished his smoke and stubbed the butt on his steps. “Damn politicians don’t care about us. They’d let this part of the city burn if they could.”
Her neighbor was right. Animal Control was understaffed and underfunded. Combine that with irresponsible dog owners, and you had a Third-World problem in an American city.
“Screw ’em,” Cindy said. “Really, they should lock up all the people who let their dogs loose. We can’t catch all of them.”
Demetrius raised his beer in salute. Across the street, a pitbull wandered out of an alley and rummaged through a trash can. “Amen to that. So, how’s Daryl?”
“He’s okay,” she lied. “Still looking for work.”
“Tell him he can always work part-time for me. Mowing lawns ain’t that hard.” He stood and opened his screen door. “I think I just saw him and his girlfriend go in the house.”
Her heart skipped a beat. “Just now?”
“I believe so.”
She tried not to show her anxiety. “Let me check.”
When she opened her door, she saw him.
Daryl was sitting on the couch with Tammy, eating Ramen noodles and watching cartoons. He sat there casually, like nothing was wrong.
“Where have you been?!” she yelled.
“Around.” He didn’t bother to put the noodles down and spoke with a mouthful.
He looked terrible. His sunken face stared blankly at the TV, and his gaunt body lay on the couch like a skeleton. He looked like all the other heroin addicts Cindy had ever known, like a zombie with one foot in a muddy grave.
Cindy used to grab him and look for signs he’d been using. She’d look for needle marks on his arms and hands and for bloodshot eyes. She didn’t do that anymore.
She put her keys on the living room table and took a deep breath. Daryl laughed at the bizarro cartoon on Adult Swim. Tammy was sitting beside him with that same faraway look in her eyes.
“You can’t keep doing this to me, Daryl.”
He didn’t respond. The distance between them was too vast. Cindy knew that. She remembered the way her mother used to get when her mother was using. How the lines of communication would shut down and the tension in the room grew thick.
“You can’t just ignore me.”
Nothing. And then another laugh at the cartoon. Daryl didn’t even turn his head to acknowledge her. The memories came flooding back for Cindy now. She recalled finding her mother unconscious on the couch with drool dripping out the side of her mouth. Her mother’s eyes had rolled to the back of her head.
She remembered her dad panicking as they rushed her to the emergency room. They brought her back to life and shipped her to a treatment center. That was the last time Cindy saw her mother in person.
“Get out,” Cindy said silently.
Daryl still didn’t respond. Tammy turned around and looked at her with glassy eyes.
“I said get out!”
Daryl turned the volume up on the TV and kept eating. Cindy grabbed the remote from his hands and shut the TV off, creating a funeral-like silence.
“Get out of my house.”
Daryl’s expression didn’t change. Cindy looked into his eyes and a black hole where her little boy used to be. He looked away after a moment, but Cindy kept staring. She wondered if she was doing the right thing. If getting tough would snap him out of his haze. But mostly, she was just angry and tired.
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. I can’t do this anymore.”
Daryl stood up, his black shirt loosely hanging over his skeleton frame. He grabbed Tammy’s hand and looked into Cindy’s eyes again.
He’s a lost little boy. She wondered what the voices in his head sounded like. If they were as nasty and self-loathing as hers were.
Cindy wanted to grab and hug him. She wanted to cradle him like she used to when he was a baby. She wanted to squeeze the terror of the world out of his body and tell him everything was going to be okay. But she didn’t believe it herself.
“I don’t need this.” He opened the screen door with a jerk and stormed out with Tammy. The door slammed shut, and Cindy watched him walk away.
She sat and tried to calm herself. She looked at her shaking hands. Her son was out on the street, wandering like one of the loose dogs. There was nothing she could do about it. Maybe she would get the call; maybe it would be tonight.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Nick Pipitone