The menagerie

1218

(1,218 words)

She didn’t want the dog. Or the rabbit. But Josh had left them in the will.

“You can say no,” the lawyer told her. “You’re not obliged. It’s not enforceable, with animals.”

But what kind of friend would she be? What kind of person? She took them.

The gassy one-eyed Brindle pug, and the three-legged English lop. Lop, indeed. Lop, chop. Chopped lop. Susan sighed.

After all. There was the twenty-five thousand dollars. Susan’s freelance editing business was fine, it’s fine, but $25,000 would help her keep kibble on the table for all of them.

And living alone … well. Susan had thought she was getting into something with the across-the-hall neighbour. Someone to share a meal and a bed now and then. But no, that wasn’t happening. So. Animals. “I am a 35-year-old self-employed single woman with special-needs animals.” Put that on the dating sites. At least she didn’t live alone now. The sigh was bigger this time.

The worst part was walking them. Josh had a large, treed yard. Susan had a high-rise, and a park across Elgin Street. Down the elevator from the 17th  to the basement exit, she carried Brewster, the pug, under her left arm so he could see whoever was coming with his singular left eye. That meant squeezing Hamish under her right, holding his three paws against her body, a leash wrapped around each palm and gripped in her hands, pushing the call button with her elbow.

She’d only used her chin the once, when Steve from 17A—yes, that neighbour—came out in time to see her smearing her mouth against the brass plate on the wall. It wouldn’t have mattered so much if her brain’s cartoon of their one failed date didn’t jump across the screen of her mind every time she looked at him. She had spilled her wine. She had spilled his wine. She got tomato sauce on her chin. (“Here,” said Steve, dabbing it with his thumb.) And after insisting on paying, she discovered she’d left her credit card in her cargo shorts, crumpled on her bedroom floor.

“Flashy Teeth,” she took to calling him in her head, hoping to trick her brain into mockery rather than mortification mixed with panting desire. It still hadn’t worked, but she kept trying. Flashy Teeth.

“Hi, Susan. Need a hand?”

“No, I’m good, Flash. Um. Steve. Just …” She hefted the two animals, a kind of apology or a what-can-you-do. He wiped her goober from the brass plate with his sleeve and pushed the button. The elevator came, and he held his arm gallantly against the door while she stepped in. He followed. The door closed. The car started its descent.

Brewster farted. Steve’s eyebrows lifted. Susan cringed. Bad dog.

Today, like a person who could be let out in public, she used her elbow on the buttons. At the street light, the rabbit struggled. “Hamish! Stop! I’ll drop you! Stop!” The little girl beside them smiled at Hamish as Susan clutched him tighter against her waist. She clutched, the rabbit kicked, and she felt his claws through her new Reitman’s blouse. Welts were growing on her flesh right now, she knew it. She grimaced at the girl, who hid her head in her mother’s leg.

The light changed and Susan ran, the struggling rabbit leaping from her arms and pooping as they reached the park grass on the other side. The wrapped leash scored her palm, and she stumbled, dropping Brewster, who yelped. And farted.

She collected her leashes and they dashed, the three of them, clumsy sideways gaits, across the spread of lawn; lingered along the edges of the careful flower beds; and finally sat, worn out and panting lightly, under a spreading willow tree.

“With twenty-five thousand dollars, I think we can invest in a couple of cloth carriers,” she said to them. Hamish bounced and his long ears flopped. Brewster lay his head on his paw and looked at her with his eye. They took the long way home, past the Pet Valu, where the staff cuddled the animals while Susan paid and cut the tags off the two cloth-sided, hard-bottomed bags. “Hard-bottomed Steve,” she thought. Why did everything come back to Steve.

For the next month, Susan failed to avoid Steve. His door across the hall snuck open as she came and went. Or, she’d be just about to make a clean getaway into the elevator when he would dart from his unit and step on beside her.

“Hi, Susan.” He would twist his lips, wipe the button, and push LL for her, the carriers bumping her legs as she stepped back to give him room.

“Hi, Flash.”

It was after the episode with the upstairs neighbours that she made avoiding him an uncompromising mission.

Five people in short-shorts and high heels lounged across the inside of the carriage, as the door opened on its way down from the floors above. “Of course,” thought Susan, in her mended Reitman’s blouse, the unwashed cargo shorts dragging off her hips. “Jealous, much?” she asked herself.

“Hi,” she muttered to the legs-forever standing around her.

Then Steve walked on.

The seven of them plus the two animals in their carriers squeezed together in a little dance of space-finding. The five sets of eyes above the long legs eyed Susan, eyed Steve. Steve won. Susan found herself elegantly shifted to the back corner of the carriage, the golden handrail pushing into her butt cheeks, as the group reconfigured, Steve at the centre.

As the door closed, Brewster, from the depths of his ventilated carrier, farted. All the eyes looked at Susan.

“Bad dog,” she whispered. Bad dog. She closed her eyes at Steve’s pursing lips.

The third knock on the door was insistent. Susan lifted her stiff, sore neck and pushed the plastered hair from her wet forehead. “Hamish, can you get that? Brewster?” She flopped back to the sofa, sweaty and shivering.

When the fourth long rapping came, she dragged off the quilt and stumbled in her stained oversized football jersey and bare feet to the peephole.

Hard Bottom! Oh no. “What, Steve?” she croaked through the door.

“Susan, are you sick?”

“Yes.”

“Can you open the door? I haven’t seen you for three days. I made chicken broth.” He hefted a Rubbermaid bowl toward the peephole.

Susan leaned her forehead on the cool door. The failed-date cartoon and Brewster’s elevator farts jumped, full-colour, in her mind. But. She lifted her head, swiped the round sweat spot from the door with the edge of her palm, and turned the lock.

Steve wrinkled his nose as he stepped in. “Who’s worse, you or the animals?” He smiled gently at her. “You need to shower while I walk them.”

“No, Steve, no, really, please go.”

“Susan. I know you don’t … I know our date didn’t impress you. I’m sorry. I really like you. But at least let me be your friend. Seriously.”

She stared, none of the words from his mouth making any sense.

“Seriously. At least let me be your friend.” He waved the Rubbermaid container at her.

Brewster farted. Steve smirked. Hamish huffed.

Susan looked at her menagerie.

She smiled. “I guess I could stomach some homemade broth.” She pointed herself toward the shower.

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