“Trouble” by Kate Wisel, from Driving in Cars with Homeless Men, is reprinted here with permission from the University of Pittsburgh Press.
We were all the same age, our new neighbors and us. Our puppies were the same age, our new puppy and their new puppy. We learned this as the neighbors hauled boxes out of their car and our little prize thrashed his neck against the thick leash we’d bought at Petco. Unleashed, he mistook my ankles for chew toys. He found my cigarettes, even when I hid them, and ripped them to bits. We should call him Ashtray, I thought.
“That’s why we buy him toys, dumbass,” Niko had said. Cigarettes were already overpriced, and like a homeless person, I was picking through the promising ones.
Outside the new neighbors’ car, for a split second, we expected that we would become great friends. The neighbors and us, just like normal couples. Just like the puppies, normal puppies, who were pawing at each other like lovers.
“What’s your puppy’s name? Sorry I’m eating strawberries,” the girl said. She dropped the carton and the strawberries rolled next to her laundry basket. The puppies teamed up to demolish the berries, then chewed her sweatshirt collar, the gray sleeve darkening with slobber.
“His name’s Trouble,” I said. News to Niko, who looked at our puppy reluctantly, but I had him there. It wasn’t something he could argue with. Our puppy had hole-punching teeth and coal-lined eyes like an emo teenager.
“Get back,” I said. Trouble was spread eagle on the concrete as the neighbors’ puppy tongued his privates. I jerked his leash back. Not on my watch. I scooped up Trouble as he writhed in my arms, then started yelping like a Mormon girl during a kidnapping. I edged up the stairs while Niko charmed the neighbors. The girl bought it, and started talking his head off about how we should all go to dinner. Or make it.
“We should have a dinner party,” the girl said. “We’re twenty-six. We’re over partying.”
Briefly I saw myself from the view of the light fixture on the stairs, head-first, swollen eye, the door locked, bolted, my credit cards strewn below me like clues.
Later, while Trouble raised his leg to pee freely in the corner of the kitchen, I asked Niko if he noticed that both the girl and the guy neighbors had lazy eyes. I just thought, what were the chances? Both of their eyes milked at the center, identically, their pupils going googly like Magic 8 Balls.
“What does it matter?” Niko said, pouring bacon grease into a beer can. It matters to me, I thought. Did they look at each other, or half look at each other, and think, You complete me?
I hid under the dining room table with Trouble, squeezing him like a tube until he slinkyed out of my grip. I loved Trouble so much that I kind of wanted to hurt him. The muscles of his underside were so tender that to even look at him I had to bite the insides of my cheeks to shreds. Trouble stared back like he was so miserably disappointed in me, though he’d only known me a month. I thought of my brother when he was little and couldn’t speak. How he twisted his hands in front of his mouth. Blowing kisses, pointing to cookies in the aisle, then back to his mouth. Mouth to object, object to mouth. His sincere words dribbling out like applesauce. Since I couldn’t understand him, I would push him as hard as I could when no one was looking. I’d push him again, his helplessness the maker of my fury.
Trouble gagged, hunched, and heaved onto the hardwood. My cigarettes.
“No! Trouble! No!” I said. I pointed my finger to emphasize my anger, but it reworded itself as excitement. “Go! Trouble! Go!”
I kept my head in my hands as Trouble ran track around the table. He howled, barks like gunshots, his paws slipping and clicking on the hardwood.
“Why are you such a fucking baby?” Niko said, walking past, assaulting me with the sharp smell of new sneakers. At the coffee table he looked otherworldly, with his plate of stacked bacon, paleo fanatic that he was. Niko was gorgeous—everyone knew. He had slick black hair and tan skin like a man on the beach whose shoulder beads with water. Our children would be blended and according to any elderly lady in line at Stop n Shop, beautiful. I sometimes imagined their sparkling cheeks and kinky, highlighted hair. They would be him with my affectations. In photos, their eyes tiny riots, wild with inarticulate demands.
I want to tell you why I disliked our neighbors, the girl in particular, so you won’t hate me as much as my puppy hated me. The following week on the back stairs, the girl remarked on the convenience of our shared lawn out back. When she spoke, I couldn’t tell which eye to look into, so I looked at the lazy one. It swung up, receiving radio signals.
“There’s going to be a lot of shit in that yard,” the girl said, like a fact. Maybe I didn’t know things, like why Trouble needed monthly shots when I didn’t have health care, but I knew damn well that we should clean up after him. We were adults. Every day, we were adults.
Back upstairs, I’d try to explain this to Niko, but then Trouble would start barking, and we’d freeze. Trouble’s barks were an alarm going off that we did not know how to disassemble.
“What do you want?” Niko would say.
Trouble would hop madly at my waist. “You think I’m playing, esé? Say something.”
Niko would step towards me. He’d say, “Why didn’t you set her straight?”
I’d jerk my head back without meaning to. Niko had hit me many times. More than many. More than hit. Smashed my face into the wall where a mirror from a garage sale hung by the door where I never failed to check my gaze.
A month later, I stood on the lawn, shaking my knee. The sky was bleeding down the center like a knife wound. I was waiting for Trouble to go already so I could clomp back upstairs to watch Bravo and eat Doritos standing up. He would circle me, the Doritos a red bag of crack. Am I your fucking Matador? I’d think. His tongue hanging loosely, that deranged shark. It was among these thoughts that I noticed a piece of shit on the lawn.
“Do I have to do everything?” Niko said, all smug, like he was the smarter one. We were on our deck with the higher view of downtown. I’d forgotten to take out the trash.
“You don’t even have a job.” Niko liked to remind me. School is a job, I thought. The twelve-pack of craft beers he’d drunk stunk from the sweat that ridged his bald chest, which was now up against mine.
After I reset my nose with a pencil, I went to be alone in our guest room, where Niko’s electric guitars hung on the wall like a rich kid’s toys. I hid in the closet. I was the guest, to talk to the guy I’d been talking to. When he teased me, I teased back, a drip of blood tickling my lip, my old clogs smelling like burnt rubber.
The day after the Fourth, both in sweats, the girl and I stood on the lawn as our puppies rocketed towards each other, tumbling together like free-fallers. It was noon and I’d already had two Coronas. My right eye was a puff pastry enclosing a pink slit. I wanted to be alone. Really alone. Before Niko, before Trouble, the neighbors, before I could even remember. I wanted to be alone with the guy I wasn’t supposed to be talking to. I’d go anywhere with him.
“Trouble got bigger,” the girl said.
My heart sprang like a red punch from an arcade game because I couldn’t measure change with what was mine. But he wasn’t mine; I’d never asked for Trouble. Niko and I had woken up from a bad fight. A purple shiner covered my eyelid in a deep swell but matched my makeup, so we decided to go for a walk. We were walking past the thick window of a shelter. Niko thought Trouble could be a gift, a romantic gesture. Wow, I thought, I’ve never received a gift I’d have to walk for fifteen years.
When he picked Trouble out of the litter, I thought he’d stay that same size forever, the size of an organ, sticky-soft and warm. We took Trouble home. He trembled by our feet, then ripped up the sectional Niko had bought without insurance.
“Cut it out, you fucking monster!” I screamed.
In my spot, in the closet of the guest room, he fell asleep and had puppy dreams in the cage of my arms. His paws batted the air in a field where we were free and unleashed.
“Hey,” the girl said after the neighbor dog nipped at Trouble’s neck. The girl and I watched as they tugged at each other’s skin, then retreated, their eyes fixed intently on the other’s, waiting to pummel. I didn’t care about my eye, dabbing it with concealer and setting it with powder. I wanted her to see.
“They like each other,” the girl said. I knew what she meant. She meant us. She wanted us to like each other. She wanted it since that first day they pulled up with their goddamn sorcerer’s auras and dirty laundry.
“Stop it,” I said to Trouble.
“Do you want to go to that new Mexican place down the street? Just you and me?” she said.
I wanted to go, I did, but if I opened my mouth, the heat would crawl in. I wanted to sit next to her in the booth with my superior eyes, tracing my fingers down the row of similar but different margaritas. She was waiting, with her permanent grin on, I could tell, though I stayed busy watching Trouble.
He was lunging this way and that way, trapped in the yard, thinking he was free. Was he bigger and why couldn’t I tell? When would I know? And then the dogs started barking, cruel little yips, and I grabbed at the leash, but Trouble had this new kind of force as he lunged at the neighbor dog. I looked at the girl, thinking she would do something. But for the first time she said nothing. Dumb chick just stood there, waiting. I was wordless, wanting. Wanting to look where she looked, but she was looking at me.
Kate Wisel is a Boston native. Her writing has appeared in publications that include Gulf Coast, Tin House Online, and Redivider as winner of the Beacon Street Prize, among others. She received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago, and was most recently a Carol Houck fiction fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she taught fiction. She currently lives in Chicago. Driving in Cars with Homeless Men is her first book.