All the Dogs Are Out Tonight

by Sarah Grunder

That’s what Aunt Liv says, and it’s true. We’re both on the deck, chins
cupped in our hands as we lean against the rotted railing, cans of
ginger ale at our feet. Her six dogs race along the gate where they’re
joined by a few neighborhood dogs I don’t recognize. The moon hangs
low and gluttonous. It shimmers like a dream, and on nights like this,
when humidity clings to my skin, I can almost see the swamp that
once was.

“Is it a full moon?” I ask. I’m not really asking, but Liv’s been silent
for too long. She picks up the ginger ale, but doesn’t drink it, trying
to hide her trembling hands. She’d always been eccentric, but Uncle
Bill and I had always chalked it up to the drinking. When he’d gotten
sick last year she’d tried to stop, and it turned out she was just as
strange without the booze. On the day he’d died, she’d spent four
hours designing thank you cards online, only breaking down when
deciding how many to order.

“How many people are gonna bring casseroles, Shelley? Not your
momma and daddy, that’s for sure. What if we don’t have room in the
freezer?” she’d asked.

“We can use cousin Mae’s, Liv,” I’d said, and Paul, my husband,
squeezed my shoulder and said, “Get a hundred just in case, not like
you can ever have enough thank you cards,” and Liv had smiled.

“Full moon was yesterday,” Liv says. “Maybe the new bitch is in
heat.”

I try to name each dog and realize that I can’t. In truth, no one’s
been able to keep track of them since Uncle Bill died, but the unspoken
rule to maintain the pack lingers. When one dies, another shows
up to take its place. I remember being nine years old and searching
the pound for our missing Chihuahua with Bill, only to end up adopting
a one-eared lab named Celine Dion. Liv had laughed when the
three of us arrived home; a pat for me and Celine Dion, a kiss for Bill.

I’d never understood their dynamic. Liv constantly walked around
in the nude, belting Dolly Parton songs just because they lived in the
middle of nowhere and she could. Bill was a home-at-five-with-dinner-
and-a-beer-ready-on-the-table kind of guy, but they’d managed
to make it work thirty years, so what did I know? The longest I’d ever
been single was six weeks in ninth grade, and most of that time was
spent swapping spit with Tommy Geraci behind his girlfriend’s back.
It’s been four weeks since Paul asked for a divorce; my time is running
out.

“She looks like her,” Liv says, bony arm stretched out, pointing at
one of the dogs. Which one, I couldn’t say.

“Like Celine Dion?” I ask, confused.

Lately, I haven’t tried to understand Liv or anyone else. I look out
at the dogs and I can understand that, all teeth and hair and dirt;
there’s nothing to screw up. My life, on the other hand, has been
falling apart ever since Mom and Dad ran off to do charity work in
El Salvador. That’s what they’d told Liv when they’d dropped me off
at her house with all my belongings in plastic grocery bags, but we
never heard from them again. They’d always been kind to me, Liv
and Bill, but the sink knobs were always caked in hair, cockroaches
skittered over the silverware every time the drawer was opened to
set the table, and algae waved at me from every toilet bowl in the
house. Sometimes conditions would improve after CPS came round
for a visit, but never for long.

When I moved out and got married things had been pretty okay
for a while, until Paul caught me bare-assed in the kitchen with Joey
from work and asked for a divorce, and so I’d run home to Aunt Liv’s
to lick my wounds.

That first week I sat on the floor of the guestroom howling as many
words that rhyme with divorce as possible. There are forty, and one of
them is “gift horse.” Afterward I’d tugged all the photographs of Liv
and Bill from around the house and placed them around me like a
shrine. With my hands over my eyes I’d whispered curses like prayers
and wondered what the hell I really wanted anyway. Liv had watched
from the doorway. She thought I couldn’t see her, but I did. She left
me alone, though, God bless her. Later on my nightstand I’d found a
greeting card catalog and flipped through pictures of old women in
bikinis and Minions with sayings like You’re only as old as you remember
you are! and You’re one in a minion!

“Don’t you watch the news?” she says, shaking her head, arm still
extended, eyes turned towards me big and gray as true full moons.
She asks if I know about that Moscow stray, Laika, the first dog in
space.

“Didn’t the newspapers call her Mutt-pik?”

“And Sput-pup and Pooch-nik,” she answers.

There is a hum to the air, maybe just the buzzing of mosquitos, and
I wait for her to speak, to say what she means, but she doesn’t. When
I ask, “What? What is it?” she shakes her head and says, “I don’t want
to make you sad.”

I’m already sad, among other things. Today is my thirtieth birthday.
Liv will take me out for dinner in a few hours, but won’t enjoy
it because the fishbowl margaritas will be too much to bear. She’ll
spend the night dry-heaving with the car door open, missing the
oversized sombrero and mariachi strumming:

“Bienvenidos to the Border

We’ve heard you’re getting older

You’re up there just like jumping beans

It seems your daddy had good genes

Felicidades a ti!”

***

I will sit alone, spooning bean dip into my mouth, and remember
that there are worse things I could be.

The first time was just days after the honeymoon. I was supposed
to be unpacking boxes while Paul worked, but there I was at a hotel
bar sitting in the lap of a handsome stranger. I thought it’d be different
with Paul, that monogamy would suit me, but even at the reception,
sweat pouring down our faces, the thought I can’t hack it rang
through me like an alarm. Maybe leaving was in my DNA. Mom and
Dad had left so long ago that I didn’t have a single memory of them.
Maybe I’d just wanted to test the limits of his love, or maybe I’d just
wanted to prove that I was truly and wretchedly unlovable. That’s
what I’d said the first time we’d met: “I am truly and wretchedly unlovable.”
We were in the back of a nightclub. The wall Paul pushed me
up against, gummy from sweat or spilled drinks, stuck to the small of
my back. The music pounded through our bodies, replacing our own
rhythms, taking over for my heart. He ran his thumb over my lips
before kissing me, like he was dog-earing a page in a book.

Squinting out at the pack, I see her now, the one that looks like
Laika. I remember seeing her picture in a history book once, strapped
into a leather harness and looking off to the side. I’d thought she
looked brave, but it’s more likely the Russians were baiting her with
a treat.

“I want to know,” I say. Aunt Liv’s gone silent again, her arms folded
and eyes shut, like she does when she wants a drink and is trying
to think of anything else.

“No,” she says.

I tell her I’ll Google it if she doesn’t say, and one eye opens and her
bottom lip hangs heavy, parted just enough that I know the words
will come.

“They knew she was gonna die,” she begins, “so one of the cosmonauts
took her home to play with his children before the mission.
Anyway, I heard the other day that she didn’t go peacefully like
they’ve been saying all this time; the panic and heat got to her within
hours of takeoff.”

“But she was the first animal to orbit Earth!” I cry.

“Yeah, first dead one,” Liv says. And she was right, it makes me sad.

She wraps an arm around my shoulder and I lean my head into her.

“Why’d you never visit? Even when Bill died, you just left. You never
came home.”

“You know I couldn’t bring Paul here, but I’m home now,” I say.

Two weeks ago when I walked in the door and was hit by the odor
of dog piss I cried. It was only somewhat from the repulsion of living
in such conditions, but mostly because this used to be my normal
and I felt guilty for my disgust. At least it wasn’t as bad as when we’d
had that paralyzed dog in the wheelchair, the one that couldn’t control
its bowels and left smears of shit down the hallways. But now I
hardly notice.

When Paul and I bought our first place, I’d run my fingertips along
the neutral walls and granite counters, I’d peeled off my socks and
wiggled my toes deep in carpet that’d never seen so much as a dog
hair, let alone a dog shit, and thought, Mine, mine, mine. Paul laughed
at me and said, “You act like you’ve never seen a clean house before,”
and I should’ve told him about it all years ago just after we’d met,
about my parents, about growing up with Bill and Liv and the dogs,
and we would’ve laughed and I would’ve said, “Yeah, but I’ve never
lived in one.” He’d give me that knowing look and we would’ve ordered
Chinese and ate it on the kitchen floor. But I’d never told him,
and so when the spaces between us grew, like the universe so that
you almost don’t notice, the house began to feel like it belonged to
someone else, and I guess that’s true now because it’s not mine anymore.

I look up at my aunt, a woman who couldn’t clean a floor, let alone
a home, yet had somehow survived over thirty years of marriage, a
woman who still leaves his armchair empty, still smacks the dogs on
the snout with his slippers, still wears his t-shirts to bed five years
after his death.

“When you called, you know, to tell me about you and Paul, I already
knew,” she says.

I pull away from her. “How?”

“You weren’t yourself, Shelley, at that wedding. I didn’t even know
who you were. I knew then.” She pauses to smooth my hair, then
takes my cheeks in her hands. “It’s not your parents’ fault you can’t
love yourself, that’s on you. You had me and Bill and Paul, and now
you just got me, but none of it matters if you don’t have you.”

She frees my face, but not before a stern pat on the cheek. I almost
say something, almost ask a question, but the moment passes and
two Pit Bulls barrel towards the pack.

There’s ten of them now, howling and racing and whining. Liv wonders
if it’s because everyone’s brought the trash out, but then I mention
that the garbage truck has already come. “Last night would’ve
been garbage night then,” she mumbles as she follows them to the
gate, and I think about how remembering trash day and dragging
bins out to the curb used to make me feel so sane, but even Liv manages
this.

Something about that damn space dog scratches at me and I’m
afraid. I remain on the deck, watching and pretending that I, too,
wasn’t just some stray pulled in off the street and tossed into a ship
headed in circles. The dogs are rolling now, kicking up dust in the
road. They are clawing and fighting and listening with pointed ears.
Liv is in the middle of it all, her barking laugh as loud as any of theirs,
the dogs nipping at the bins as she drags them back to the house. And
I, too, want to be wild and licking and to snarl at things. I want to leap
off the deck and take a shit in the middle of the road. I want to run,
run, run, and embrace the reality of panic and heat that makes love
possible. I want to see Paul again and tell him everything. I want to
get on my knees and beg, to promise I’ll really be different this time.
But I know it doesn’t matter how many tricks I learn, I won’t come
home—not all dogs do.