Sunday Stories: “Selectively Bred”


Selectively Bred
by Kristen Arnett

Bacon sat at the bottom of Monica’s purse. Four large pieces bundled in a ziplock baggie, stuffed beneath her wallet and an unopened package of spearmint breath mints. She’d considered packing string cheese or some bloody slices of roast beef, but ultimately decided that dogs liked bacon best. She stood in front of her stove, frying the strips until they turned crunchy brown and grease spattered her bare arms. Her hair carried the scent of it hours later. It made her stomach rumble, that good greasy breakfast smell. It reminded her of childhood.

Monica told the barista her coffee order and paid with cash. Her fingers slipped across the plastic baggie as she reached for her wallet and she smiled, imagining the dog’s excitement. On television commercials dogs went crazy for bacon. There was something so satisfying about the salt and the fat, Monica thought. Even people couldn’t get enough; they ate it on everything from sandwiches to salads. Humans and dogs weren’t so different: licking, shitting, pissing, and most of them smelled bad. Dogs didn’t talk, though. That made them easier to deal with.

Walking to the condiment station, she stared through the shop’s front window. It was gloomy out, which wasn’t ideal, but it was still early. The sun would likely burn off the gray morning fog before she even hit the park. It was October, and Monica knew that meant the chance of rain was slim. One of the driest months in Florida, other than April.

That’s what her father always said. A nice time of year to leave your windows open. Maybe one of the only times to sit outside without attracting mosquitoes.

“Could I get past you?”

The woman behind her juggled a cardboard tray stuffed with oversized coffee cups. A brown paper bag full of scones threatened to slide off the top.

Monica turned so she completely blocked the table. “I’m not done yet.”

“I just need to set down my tray.”

Hunching over, Monica put out her elbows and grabbed the creamer. She took her time, leaning down to smell the deep, burnt aroma that always woke up her taste buds. Coffee was the best way to wake up, her father always said. He drank his black, but Monica liked a little splash of something to lighten hers. Aside from the cream, there were different kinds of flavored sweeteners. She didn’t normally use sugar, but she picked these up and smelled them. Vanilla. Nutmeg. One that looked a little like cinnamon. The woman behind her cleared her throat. Monica hummed and picked up another one. Cocoa powder?

“I’m going to drop this.” The woman bumped into Monica’s back. “Please, I just need to set it down.”

There were plastic stir sticks perched in a little cup, but Monica liked the wooden ones better because they were wrapped. Much more hygienic, she thought selecting one and peeling back the paper. Outside, a man walked past holding a travel mug in one hand and a leash in the other. Monica looked down excitedly, but it wasn’t the right kind of dog. This one was mottled brown and too big; its head was heavy like a rock. The woman behind her grunted and bumped into her again, so Monica stepped back abruptly and knocked the tray out of the woman’s hand.

Hot liquid splattered the ground. It sounded like someone throwing up. The woman yelled and tripped over something, perhaps a chair leg. Monica wasn’t looking. Some of the coffee had splashed her legs, but not too much, and she wasn’t wearing anything she cared about: scrubby old jeans, a black t-shirt she’d worn to paint her parent’s house. She put the lid back on her own coffee and turned to leave. A dark river flowed across the tile floor, touching the shoes of several people who waited in line for coffees of their own.

The barista who’d helped Monica hurried over with a wet rag. “Did you burn yourself?”

“Not too bad,” the woman said, then hissed and held up a pink, dripping palm. She was crying a little and dark makeup ran below her right eye. “Could you help me?”

Both of them kneeled to collect the cups. Monica stepped over the woman’s legs. She kicked the bag of scones with her sneaker and it skid across the tile, creating a wake in the lake on the floor. The woman dropped one of the cups to try and reach for it. More coffee leaked out. She had a run in her pantyhose and when she kneeled like that it was pulling it longer, and longer, like an invisible hand was stripping the threads.

Monica stepped around customers waiting by the door and stepped onto the sidewalk. She was happy to see she’d been right about the weather: the sun pierced the cloud cover, burning off the damp and gray. It wasn’t cool out this time of year, not yet in Florida, but there was a feeling in the air like it might be soon. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day and it made Monica feel happy to be awake and alive. She reached into her purse and felt for the bag of bacon. One of the pieces broke under her fingertips. She removed her hand and kept walking.

Normally at this time she’d be showering and getting dressed for work, but Monica had called in sick. She’d barely been able to sleep the night before, getting up every fifteen minutes to check and recheck her supplies. There was the red and black tartan dog bed, placed right at the end of her own. There was a collection of nylabones and chewing rings, perfect for small-to-medium breeds. She’d made absolutely sure she purchased the best items with the highest brand endorsements. Her father always said it was important to measure for quality, not quantity. She felt good about her choices.

People walked past with different kinds of dogs. There were roly ones and slim ones, little yippy pups that pranced past on legs the size of twigs. Those dogs barked if you walked too close to them. Monica didn’t like them very much. She frowned at one with ears like a bat and crossed the street, scouting for other dogs. It was funny to look at the people, to mark their resemblance to their pets. A man jogged past in bright blue running clothes. His dog, very wiry and black, wore a matching blue bandana. An elderly woman walked a frizzy white dog with ears that stuck up attentively, as if tuning in for radio signals. Monica took a sip of her coffee and smiled; the perfect temperature.

She wasn’t in a hurry, so she enjoyed the breeze and the sun and took the long way to get to the park. It was a nice place with a gravel path and a lot of trees, benches, and a playground for the kids designed to look like an oversized castle. There was a lot of mulch, which Monica read housed ticks, but she wasn’t too worried. She’d bought repellent and planned on using it as soon as they got home.

Monica sat down on an empty bench beside the playground. Not too many kids were out yet, which was good. They yelled a lot and the sound could sometimes be distracting. She drank her coffee and watched runners churn up gravel on the path that meandered through the park. There was a dog area cordoned off to the far right, blockaded by a chain link fence. Only one dog was loose there now, a yellow mutt chasing after a tennis ball. It was usually muddy in that section of the park; at least it had been every time Monica had dropped by to scope out the perimeter. Muddy and full of fecal matter. The yellow dog had muck all over its forelegs. Some of it dotted his muzzle when he dug behind a bush for the ball. Monica hoped her dog wouldn’t get too messy before she could take it home. A bath wasn’t on her agenda, but she supposed she could always fill her guest bathtub and scrub it down immediately after.

When she was young, they’d always bathed the dog outside. Her father said this was the only way to clean an animal, to make sure that fur didn’t clog the drain and back up the septic system. You have to make sure they don’t track in disease, he said, slopping water and soap on the dog until you couldn’t see anything but fluffy white bubbles. Most people didn’t know this, but it was important to wash dogs at least twice a week. Her father had scrubbed their dog three times in a row, every bath. The dog hadn’t liked baths outside; it howled and barked until her father shouted at it.

Across the playground, a woman set up birthday party decorations at one of the picnic tables. She pulled out a large stack of neon pink party hats and little pink gift bags that kept blowing over in the breeze. The woman tried to smooth a plastic cloth over the tabletop, but it kept flying up at either end and folding back across the middle. Her little girl ran around in circles while she worked to right everything. The girl made shrieking noises that went up in pitch.

“Laura, no.” Napkins tumbled across the grass. Some of them took flight and flipped up into the branches of an oak, perched in the leaves like bright paper flowers.

Monica thought the girl couldn’t be more than four. She had the kind of dumpling skin all little kids had; pastry flesh adults always said they’d like to bite. Laura’s hair was tangled around a face stained with something that looked like chocolate. Her party dress was the same color as the napkins that buffeted the table. Monica had birthday parties when she was young, but they’d never been outside. Her father hadn’t liked all the dirt. Good way to catch a disease is to eat outside, he’d said when Monica asked why they never used a grill.

Her coffee was getting cold. Monica took off the lid and took several careful sips, worrying that she’d fill her bladder and there’d be no time to use a restroom. A man walked past with a black and white spotted dog. Its tail wagged back and forth rhythmically, keeping beat like a metronome. They stopped close to the bench Monica sat on and the dog pliéd in the grass to pee. A yellow river ran down the dirt, over an anthill, and stopped to collect near her shoe. She lifted her feet and turned away from them. There were certain kinds of dogs that were good and certain kinds that were bad, according to Monica’s father. The spotted dog with its bladder control issues was one of the bad ones.

“Melba, heel!”

It had found Monica’s purse and stuck its nose deep inside, sniffing. She yanked it away and onto her lap. “Excuse me,” she said. “Please control your animal.”

“I’m so sorry.” The man pulled on the leash and the dog struggled for a minute, still trying to reach the bag that now sat wedged between Monica’s thighs. He had to pull extra hard to get the dog back on the path and away from the bench.

More people had shown up at the birthday table. A pink and white sign had been stabbed into the grass that read “Laura” in fancy cursive script, bracketed by balloons that wagged back and forth in the breeze. In the middle of the table sat a layer cake, its pink and white icing bright enough to resemble playdough. Presents spilled over onto the bench seat. A couple of moms leaned into each other, talking quietly. Kids plucked streamers from the table and ran around with them, whooping and screaming.

“I’m the King,” Laura yelled from the top of the castle. It had a tube slide that twirled around and spiraled into the mulch. “King because it’s my birthday!”

Monica finished her coffee and replaced the lid, setting it beneath the bench. It left a coating on her tongue from where the cream had left scummy fat. She wished she had water to rinse out her mouth, but then she might have to pee. Thinking about going to the bathroom made her bladder hurt. She willed herself to think of something else. The dog. How happy she’d be once she had the dog. Checking her watch, she noted it was getting close to time. The bacon waited in her purse along with the small red leash she’d bought at the pet store and the old leather collar with the silver star tag, embossed with the word PRINGLES.

Kites dotted the sky. One was shaped like a bright turquoise parrot, another like an orange tabby cat. The cat kite didn’t make sense to Monica. She wondered why someone would choose to put a land mammal on a kite that flew. What Monica knew about cats was that they were filthy and went to the bathroom in litter boxes. Her father didn’t like cats; he said they spread disease and killed babies. They smothered them, he told her, putting a hand over Monica’s mouth and pinching closed her nostrils. Just like that, they steal the breath right from their tiny lungs. When he finally let go, Monica wheezed and her vision went dark and spotty. Remember that, if you ever think about getting a cat, her father said, shaking his head.

“Time for presents,” Laura’s mom announced, and the kids came running from the playground. They gathered around the table, jumping excitedly, knocking into each other. Laura stood at the top of the castle, waving one of the pink party streamers.

“Come open your gifts,” her mother said. “There’s a lot of nice things.”

“The King’s not ready yet,” Laura yelled, and went down the slide. She took off for the other side of the playground and a few of the kids scrambled after her.

More dogs had shown up in the fenced area. Monica sat up, squinting in the bright sunlight. There was a larger black dog and just behind it, scampering close to the fence, was a smaller one. Breathing heavily, she got up and walked a few feet closer, clutching her purse to her chest. The color was just right; the fawn coat, the black paws and ears. The closer she walked, the surer she was that it was the exact right dog.

Behind the fence, a woman wearing a paisley sundress laughed and leaned down. The dog jumped up and braced itself on her knees. She laughed and scrubbed her hand against its neck and back, ruffling the fur. The dog jumped down again and ran in a little circle, then in another.

“Thomas! Good boy!”

It twirled again, circling counterclockwise. The woman turned around and grabbed something from the tote bag resting on the picnic table behind her.

“Sit,” she said, and the dog sat immediately. The woman rewarded him with whatever she’d pulled from her bag. Monica didn’t think it could be as good as the bacon. She’d seen what the woman gave the dog on previous occasions; mostly treats premade from the store, cheap biscuits shaped like bones. Another dog and its owner entered the park, a woman with short hair and a reddish dog roughly the size of a small horse. The big dog trotted over to the little fawn dog and they jumped happily around each other.

The secondary entrance to the dog park lay on the opposite side of the containment area. It butted up to a street that dead-ended into a neighborhood. Tall oaks and azalea bushes bracketed the fence there, making everything swim in purple shadows. Monica strolled the perimeter and stared covertly at the little fawn dog, marveling over its sweet, pushed in face and the short curl of its tail. Her father said a good dog doesn’t bark and always obeys commands. Their family dog had been preternaturally silent. It never made a peep other than the small snorts and grunts that marked its breathing. Monica had loved to sleep with her hand dangling out of bed, touching the dog’s back in the night. If she could feel its bristly, wiry hair, mark the rise and fall of its back, then she knew there was something else with her in the world. Something loyal and friendly, something that cared.

The sun beat through the trees and streamed patterns onto the patchy grass. There was much less lawn and more brambles on the opposite side of the park. Monica kept an eye out for anthills and watched two more owners and their dogs enter the front gate. It was a good place to watch, unobserved, as the dogs played. They tumbled together in the dirt, a jumble of tangled limbs, jettisoning each other into the greenery. Their owners gathered by the picnic table and talked about their dogs, but also about their jobs and their lives. The woman with the paisley sundress leaned close to the shorthaired woman. They laughed over something. Maybe a joke. Monica couldn’t quite make out what they were saying.

Dogs raced past, kicking up gouts of dirt. Some of them barked, loudly, as if they were yelling at one another. The little fawn dog chased the reddish one, jumping up onto its side and nearly somersaulting into a patch of weeds. Monica knew she’d have to be quick. She opened her purse and took out the plastic baggie. Most of the pieces were still intact. She waited until the reddish dog moved away and the fawn dog sat down to lick its hindquarters.

“Thomas,” she whispered, opening the ziplock and thrusting it over the fence. “Thomas, come!”

The dog turned to look at her. Its eyes were liquid brown, shiny with wet. A trusting face, Monica thought. Perfect. Exactly right. She shook the baggie and the smell of bacon wafted out, salty and rich with fat. The little dog cocked its head and sat up. It trotted over to the fence where Monica shook the bag. Pleased at its obedience, she threw down a small piece, which landed in the dirt. The dog ate it, anyway, even though it was muddy and covered with germs. Monica wrinkled her nose.

A woman laughed. Monica looked up, sure she’d been spotted, but the owners were engrossed in what another dog was doing at the opposite side of the park. The fawn dog looked at her expectantly and licked its lips, ready for another piece of bacon. Monica opened the gate and crouched down right beside it, shaking the bag. “Come here, Thomas. Bacon.”

Other dogs were starting to notice. The large reddish one stopped its tug of war with another black dog and looked at her. Monica slowed her breathing, trying to stay calm. She crumbled a piece in her fingers and held out a chunk to the little dog. It came forward and took it from her. Its little pink tongue left spit on her fingertips. Monica wiped them on her jeans. Her father said dog spit was cleaner than human spit, but it was still nothing to keep on your person. Monica handed another piece to the dog and it ate it, too, its whole body wriggling happily.

Something slammed into her and nearly knocked her onto her behind. It was the black and white spotted dog from earlier; the one that had pissed so close to the sidewalk. It pressed its face into the plastic baggie and snuffled, rooting around, licking at the bacon pieces. Monica yanked the bag away and the dog yipped excitedly, nosing at her again. Frustrated, she dropped the baggie and grabbed the little dog, clutching him to her chest. No one yelled or called out for her to stop. The dog was a warm, reassuring weight against her body. It did not struggle for release. She exited the enclosure and closed the gate behind her, striding through the stands of azalea and oaks, headed down the dead-end street. Houses rose on either side of her like pastel sentinels, towering above her and blocking the sun.

It went exactly as Monica hoped it would. No fuss, no yelling or any kind of struggle. Moving away from the park and toward her home, strolling the quiet streets of a nice neighborhood. The dog grunted and huffed in her arms, still winded from chasing the other dogs. Though he was small, he was a little heavy and awkward to carry. She stopped in front of a yellow house with white shutters and set him down, keeping tight hold of his collar. Digging in her purse, she searched for the leash and the old leather collar. The dog began to struggle then, pulling against her, nearly yanking its head through its own collar, which was too loose.

“Stop that, Pringles!” She pushed down on his butt to get him to sit. He resisted. “Pringles! No!”

Her father said it was the owner’s responsibility to make sure that pets behaved properly. He’d been a strict disciplinarian. When their dog had gotten into the trashcan and vomited the scraps onto their living room rug, her father took matters firmly in hand. She woke the next morning to find the animal gone. Not just the dog, but all of its things: the chew toys, its blankets. The stuffed pig it liked to carry from room to room. Her father had taken care of everything, like he always did. All that was left was the collar. She’d found it in her father’s car, on the floor of the front seat. Had the dog been scared, she’d wondered. Had the dog known what was going to happen to it?

Aggravated, she finally upended everything in her purse onto the street. The leash had wrapped itself around her wallet. She pushed the animal, still squirming, between her legs, trying to trap it in place. It made noises then, more than the grunts and snuffling she was used to hearing. It made a high keening, something that sounded a lot like a baby crying. She unbuckled the old collar and tightened her knees so it couldn’t get loose. The dog protested wildly, squirming until it nearly unseated her.

“Where’s my mom?”

Monica yelped and nearly let go of the dog. It was the little girl from earlier, Laura, from the birthday party. Her face was splotchy and red from crying and her mouth still had chocolate caked around it. It was her birthday and she looked like she’d crawled out of a trash can. Monica wondered why her mother didn’t take better care of her.

“Are you lost?” Monica asked. “The park’s back that way, just go through the gate down the street.”

Between her legs, the dog squirmed violently. She picked up the collar from the mess on the ground and tried to wrap it around the dog’s chubby neck. It was too big; it looked like a leather necklace. She stopped and unhooked it, tightening it a few notches, then tightening it a few more.

“I don’t know where she is. I don’t know where my mom is.” The little girl moved closer. There was snot on her chin. Monica looked away, disgusted. She had some tissues in her purse, somewhere. She figured she’d get the collar on the dog and then hand one of those to the little girl.

Shouting came from down the street, near the park. Monica paused mid-way through buckling the collar. She thought she could hear the woman in the paisley dress. That maybe she could hear the name Thomas being yelled. Laura started really wailing, voice going up and up like a police siren. Monica turned to shush her, to tell her to be quiet, and then the dog broke free. It took off with its tail tucked up under its butt. It was there one second, in her grasp, and then it was gone. Like she’d never had it.

Monica stared down the street where it disappeared, toward the direction of the park. The shouting had stopped. The leash trailed down her leg, looping on the pavement like a coiled snake.

“I want my mom,” said the little girl. “I want my mom.”

The dog’s own collar still lay where she’d discarded it, ID tag blinking silver. Monica gathered up her things and stuffed them back inside her purse, careful to brush everything free of dirt. Then she took a tissue from the plastic travel pack in her bag and wiped at the girl’s nose. Once she’d gotten off all the snot and chocolate, it was a very sweet face with pink cheeks. Brushing back the girl’s hair, she noticed it was a very nice color, too. Thick and wheaty, with bright blonde highlights at the temple and crown. It reminded her of a doll she’d owned. It had been called Mollie. Its lips were shaped like a tiny rosebud, just like the little girl’s.

“Do you feel better now?” Monica asked, standing up. She took the girl’s hand. “Done crying?”

“Yes.” She smiled, flashing two rows of perfect, pearly teeth. Doll teeth, thought Monica.

“Let’s go then.”

They walked together down the street, opposite the park. When they reached the tall row of pastel homes, Monica guided them through the sliver of yard between the houses. Sun shone through the trees. The branches all shook in the breeze and dropped acorns on the cars and along the sidewalk. The sound they made was like the punching tick of a clock. Leaves scuttled along the pavement and collected in the grass. It was a very nice day out, Monica thought, squeezing the girl’s hand. She’d been right. Perfect weather after all.

Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer. She was awarded Ninth Letter’s 2015 Literary Award in Fiction, was runner-up for the 2016 Robert Watson Literary Prize at The Greensboro Review, and was a finalist for Indiana Review’s 2016 Fiction Prize. Her work has either appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, OSU’s The Journal, Catapult, Bennington Review, Portland Review, Grist Journal, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. You can find her on twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett

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