The thing is, I don’t even like dogs. In my world, dogs are either small, yappy things that gnaw your ankles or monsters that slobber on your sundresses. So, when I saw that old chocolate lab the other day, with its bony hips and drunken gait, headed up Sixteenth Avenue—a street I usually avoid because of its unobstructed afternoon sun and cars revving for the freeway—I didn’t really want to stop.
“C’mon,” my sister Joya said through the phone. “Check its collar.”
I sighed and followed her instructions, probably because the 4 p.m. Honolulu heat was baring its teeth and I felt bad for the poor creature in its thick, dark coat. It was probably the right thing to do. I reminded myself what was required to live in a community, that taking care of each other was part of that. That that was one of the reasons I left the zombies of New York again to come back to Hawaiʻi. Because I wanted to be around people who looked out for each other and, in moments like this, would stop to help your dog if it was lost or in danger.
A car flew up Sixteenth Avenue, giving the feeling, again, that the road was more on-ramp than neighborhood street.
When I saw a seven-digit number—no area code needed in the 808—on the silver tab hanging off Old Girl’s collar, I dutifully got off the phone. Even though Joya and I had just gotten to a good part in the conversation, about how my funding through the graduate program in the English department was about to run out, how I needed a real job, stat, while I wrote my dissertation. I’d been saying I was worried about having the discipline to write while working full time, that I didn’t want mind-numbing desk work or the four or five classes per semester I’d have to be willing to take on at the community colleges to get health insurance. I was whining, probably a little late, that a graduate degree in English didn’t come with job security. I told her I didn’t want to have to move back to the continent.
“Would that be so bad?” Joya had asked, her voice suddenly small.
I didn’t want to tell her it might be. She knew I wanted to stay here, that I wanted a home here.
When I got the owner on the line, I was surprised when he said the lab would be fine.
“She gets out in the afternoon,” he said. “It’s no big deal.”
“It is a big deal,” I said, not sure if I was more flummoxed at his answer or my reaction to the thought of ditching Old Girl right where she was. I wasn’t sure why I felt so protective of her already, even as I continued, “Folks treat this road like a highway. When I found her she looked like she was gonna wander onto the pavement.” I told him about the narrow piece of sidewalk. I looked around where we were. She was on the curb in front of a house with a chain-link fence and a green carport. I wondered how far she’d wandered. It must have been pretty far, considering how bad she looked.
He told me he had two more hours before he could leave work.
I told him I didn’t have a fence or a yard.
That’s when I saw the man across the street hollering at me. He was a big white guy with cheeks red from the heat, a round belly under a stretched-to-the-max cotton t-shirt. He was fisting a quarter tank of what looked like orange juice in a gallon-sized plastic jug.
I held the phone away from my ear, heard him yell, “Bring her over here! I know that dog.”
I told the owner what Red Cheeks said, said I’d text with the address, and guided Old Girl by her collar. She didn’t fight me.
“I’ve seen her around,” Red Cheeks said. “It’s too hot for a dog like that, in this heat.”
I agreed with him, shook my head to think her owner was fine with her traipsing around without water, her paws probably sizzling in the heat.
I saw Red Cheeks sway a little. I told myself it was nothing.
“I’m in this house,” he said. “Back here.”
I noted the front yard. Saw that he was taking us to the back house. I felt the sidewalk recede behind us.
The garage door was open, and Red Cheeks walked inside. There was nothing else in there—no car, no oil stains, no rakes or brooms piled up in the corner, no nothing. It was serial-killer white.
“Come on,” he said. “In through here.”
Back in New York, there’s no way I would have. Red Cheeks noticed when I hesitated.
“Come! We have to go in this way. Backyard is through the house. Come!” he ordered, and I found both Old Girl and I responding against my instincts.
This isn’t New York, I scolded myself. This guy’s my neighbor. It’s good to trust people.
Old Girl and I stepped inside a second before Red Cheeks hit the button to close the garage door, which thumped shut behind us.
Oh shit, I thought. This is it. I moved to Hawai‘i after all those years in New York and have lost my damned mind.
Old Girl whimpered next to me.
I looked around for something to grab. He probably had a good hundred pounds on me. Old Girl wasn’t a fighter. Neither was I.
“Can you help me with this?” Red Cheeks asked, fumbling with the keys to the house. I saw the distance between the door and the garage opener. It would take a minute to chug open, though, even if I pushed the button. What would stop him from rushing us, shutting it again, jumpstarting the doom anyway?
I helped him with his keys, noticed a whiff of bourbon on his breath. I looked again at the orange juice jug in this hand and fought the urge to kick myself, hard.
Trusting community doesn’t mean trusting drunk old dudes, I told myself. Idiot.
“Thank you, sweetheart,” he said, holding the door open and gesturing for me to go in first.
I looked at the garage door opener.
“You first,” he ordered.
So, he’s drunk. He’s probably still harmless, I told myself.
Old Girl bolted in and I found myself, again, following her.
Red Cheeks tottered in after us, screeched open a screen door, and let Old Girl into the backyard with a little three-legged dog that barked from its perch on an old beach chair. I bee-lined to the front door. Red Cheeks filled a water bowl.
He told me to take a seat, which I did at the far end of the couch, by the front door, which he’d opened. I held my phone like a weapon.
“Don’t worry,” Red Cheeks said. “I’m not a rapist.”
“I can’t stay,” I blurted out, adding that I was giving the owner his address. Old Girl whimpered at me through the screen as if to beg me not to leave.
I took a breath and looked around for a second. I told myself I was being silly. This was just the New York in me. I told myself, again, that he was probably harmless. Probably. I sat there on the couch, trying to calm myself while still staying vigilant, as Red Cheeks tried to ply me with fudge pops and stories of how he used to get $4,000/day for renting out his house to Hawaii 5-0. Old Girl plopped down in the fenced backyard, as if resigned to her fate. I could be out the front door in a second, if I needed to be. If I had to run out, Old Girl would be fine.
I took a breath and relaxed a bit when Red Cheeks pointed out the three ripped pieces of paper with pastel squiggles on them on the easel by the front door. “I made that,” he said, “about a time I was struck by lightning.”
Red Cheeks kicked up the leg rest of his Lay-Z-Boy, and the booze on his breath drifted to me like a moldy curtain on the breeze. His little three-legged dog yapped incessantly, alternating between Old Girl and me through the screen.
Red Cheeks eyed me quietly, as if his eyes were coming into focus for the first time, when he said, “How old are you, girl? Good lord . . .” He looked me up and down, slowly, his eyes like hands. He told me that he met his roommate while cruising at a gay beach near Diamond Head that he referred to as Brokebacks. “I’m into women, though,” he said, watching me over hands that drummed his belly. “I’ll buy anybody a meal, but I like pussy,” he added in a voice that told me he thought this clarification was helpful.
Old Girl stared at me from outside with her perfect doggy eyes pleading, “What the F are we doing here? Stranger danger!”
I shot up, as if from a trance, and texted the owner again, this time that I was sorry I couldn’t stay to meet him, that I was sorry to ditch his dog, that I had to go. I was outside when the owner showed up just then.
When Old Girl locked her owner in her sights, she transformed before my eyes. She jumped up and down, bounded around, and generally cheered up so well, I almost didn’t recognize her. I probably transformed too, when we were free on the sidewalk.
Walking out from the house, after Red Cheeks had clapped him on the back and whispered something inaudible in his ear while leering at me from the door frame, the owner said to me, mortified, “So . . . that guy was drunk?”
“Yep,” I said.
“And he was hitting on you?”
“Yep,” I said again.
The owner kept apologizing, genuinely I think, when he told me his name was Chris and insisted on driving me the three blocks to my house.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. “Wait here please, will you?”
I stood around dumbly by his gleaming, white pick-up truck. Was I really going to get in the car with a stranger after just escaping a creep’s house? What was wrong with me? Still, something about that idea of community insisted that I not give up. This was a good guy. I could tell that. Red Cheeks wouldn’t change that. I could still be vigilant while knowing the difference.
I watched Chris disappear around the corner with Old Girl, and then come back in a flash alone.
“Did she run away?!” I exclaimed.
“No,” he said, smiling. “She stays with my friend around the corner. You know the house with the chain link? The green carport?”
I realized perhaps too slowly that I had just kidnapped his dog from right outside her own damned house. “That might have been right where I found her,” I admitted, my face reddening. “But it’s so hot! And she looked bad!”
“It’s okay,” he said. He had the grace to smile at his steering wheel instead of me so as not to embarrass me further as we climbed into the cab.
The two-minute ride to my house was long enough for me to answer Chris’s question about how I was at UH and how my funding was about to run out. The ride was also long enough for Chris—still feeling bad about what I went through with his dog despite how I’d done it to myself and, in the process, made him responsible for it—to tell me he worked at the local newspaper and if I ever needed a job . . .
Today, when I saw Old Girl tottering outside her house again, looking down Sixteenth Avenue for a gleaming, white pick-up truck that may or may not have been on its way home just then, I scratched her behind the ears, told her she was a good girl, and kept moving, Chris’s business card tucked into my backpack.
Anjoli Roy is a mixed-race Bengali + German/English/Irish American creative writer and Ph.D. student in the English department at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Her creative writing has appeared most recently in Dămfīno, Frontier Psychiatrist, Kore Press’s Poem of the Week, Kweli, Middle Planet, River Teeth, Slink Chunk Press, and Spiral Orb. Her work is forthcoming in Demeter Press’s Borderlands & Crossroads. She is from Pasadena, California, and she loves Hawai‘i very much. She tweets at @anjoliroy. You can read more of her work at www.anjoliroy.com.