The following is excerpted from Other People’s Pets by R.L. Maizes. Copyright (c) 2020 by the author and reprinted with permission of Celadon Books, a division of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC.
Prologue – Winter 1999
One minute, La La joins a flock of geese, skating across the lake as they fly overhead, and the next, squeak, crack, she plunges into darkness. Her snowsuit inhales icy water and clings to her, weighing her down and threatening to pull her under. Though she tries to tread water, her skates are too heavy. She opens her mouth to scream, and the lake rushes down her throat. Just when she thinks she’ll drown, she sees her mother. “Mama,” she gurgles. But the woman who calls herself Mother turns and skates away. Frigid black water tugs at La La’s ankles, pours concrete into her muscles. She goes under.
Still and cold, it’s the loneliest place she’s ever been. Too dark to see anything that might thrive there. Perfectly silent until the sharp bark of a dog cuts through the water, summoning her back. Maybe help has arrived. Remembering swim lessons her father gave her, La La gathers her strength and frog-kicks to the surface. Ten feet away, a black dog awaits her. She swims toward him, reaching the edge of the hole in the ice. Hands on the white mass, she pushes as hard as she can but can’t raise herself. She frog-kicks again, desperate to stay above water. The dog howls. Urged on by the animal and no longer alone, she presses her arms against the surface of the ice but lacks the strength to lift herself out.
Exhausted, the cold stiffening her muscles, she waits to sink again. But this time, she doesn’t go under. The arms of her jacket have frozen to the ice. That’s all she remembers.
Later she learns: a man and woman arrived to skate. They found the dog keeping watch, La La unconscious, attached to the ice. On her cell phone, the woman called emergency services, who rescued La La. The dog bounded into the woods before anyone could reward him. No one knew whose dog he was or where he had come from. It wasn’t until La La was being loaded into an ambulance that her mother returned. She had gone to get help, she said.
From under warm covers the next morning, La La hears a dove coo-coo to its mate. The bird’s heart thrums with excitement. When her own pulse takes up the beat, La La doesn’t know what to make of it.
1 – Fall 2015
In Exam Room 4, La La rubs the silky muzzle of a Labrador retriever named Duck. A woman who looks to be in her thirties pales as she points out a lump on the Labrador’s side, but focusing on the dog, La La barely notices the owner’s anxiety. She takes a history and performs an exam. Soft and moveable, the growth is probably a harmless lipoma.
“What do you think?” the woman says.
La La knows better than to offer a diagnosis before the resident has seen the patient. “I’ll get the doctor.”
With a twenty-two-gauge hypodermic needle, Dr. Mun extracts cells from the lump. Though nowhere near the tip, La La feels the prick as it goes in. The doctor shows her the cells under a microscope, then gives the owner the good news. It’s a benign fatty tumor, just as La La suspected.
Pleased to give the dog a reprieve, La La remembers why she loves her work, even the general practice rotation, which others find dull. Her exhaustion from working twelve-hour days fades.
Color returns to the owner’s face. “I don’t know how to thank you both.”
“We’re glad to help,” Dr. Mun says. When La La is silent, the doctor clears her throat. She turns to La La expectantly.
“Glad to help,” La La parrots, already thinking about her next patient.
An hour later, La La prepares to place an IV in a border collie’s cephalic vein. The dog must have eaten peanut butter biscuits in the waiting room. They make La La’s tongue feel sticky and thick. She shaves a spot on the dog’s front leg and scrubs the site with alcohol and chlorhexidine before inserting the needle. She can hardly believe in less than a year she’ll be graduating and seeing patients of her own. When the phone in her pocket goes off, it isn’t the ringtone for her fiancé, Clem (“Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News”), or her father, Zev (“Run, Daddy, Run”), so she puts it out of her mind.
Treating a nervous, aging poodle, La La scratches above the dog’s heart and feels a pleasurable ache in her own chest. “You’re a champ, Gordie,” she says, after drawing his blood, but the dog doesn’t look at her or otherwise seem to hear.
She walks the poodle to the waiting room, where a man in a navy suit reaches for the leash. “He never greets me at the door anymore,” he says, his voice quavering.
“He’s not a butler,” La La mutters.
“Could be his hearing. He is an older dog.”
In the break room, a tofu and avocado sandwich in one hand, La La finally taps the phone message. Hearing John O’Bannon’s voice, she stops chewing. O’Bannon is an attorney who represented Zev and La La in a burglary case when she was a teenager. “Sorry to tell you this,” he says. “Your dad was arrested. Bail hearing is tomorrow at ten. Why don’t you stop by this afternoon? I’m still at 329 Carson, second floor.”
La La’s throat tightens around a lump of bread. She taps the message again. At the word “arrested,” she squeezes the sandwich, her fingers punching through the whole-grain bread. Zev can’t go to prison. He’s the only parent she has left; she can’t afford to lose him. The sandwich falls apart, avocado streaking the industrial tabletop. Gathering the pieces, she stumbles to the trash and drops them in. She e-mails Dr. Mun that a family emergency has come up and she’ll be out that afternoon. She would tell the resident in person but doesn’t trust herself to speak.
“They’re charging him with burglary,” O’Bannon says. The lawyer has aged. His cheeks sag. The pores on his nose are big enough to house a fly. “I’ll need a ten-thousand-dollar retainer. But it’s going to cost a lot more than that before it’s over.” Sloppy piles of official-looking papers rise on his desktop. Crime is as popular as ever.
La La’s knee bounces. She wishes O’Bannon brought a dog to work, the kind to lay its muzzle in your lap. “What did Zev say he could give you?”
“When he heard the DA was asking to set bail at fifty thousand dollars because a victim was in the hospital, Zev said he’d have to rely on a public defender. He can barely scrape together the seventy-five-hundred-dollar fee for the bail bondsman.”
La La isn’t surprised. What little extra money Zev had, he gave her to help with veterinary school tuition. Though she can’t afford to pay O’Bannon, either, she hates to turn the case over to a public defender. As a teenager, she watched them in the courtroom while she waited for her own burglary case to be called. They leafed through client files as though they’d never seen them before.
She would ask Clem for the money, but he disapproves of Zev’s occupation, and besides, what he earns as a chiropractor barely covers their bills. There was a time she would have raised the money herself, breaking into the homes of the wealthy—some people have more than they need, more than anyone should—but she promised Clem she was finished with that. La La thinks briefly of her mother. She has no idea where Elissa is or if she’d be willing to help. “Give us a few days to figure something out.”
The lawyer drums his fingers on his lips. “I suppose that would be okay.”
As La La gets up to leave, she sees, on O’Bannon’s desk, a studio photograph of a harried woman and three robust boys. It’s a different family than the one he used to have. Round two, she presumes. Or perhaps the boys are his stepchildren, cared for by a host of mothers and fathers.
Growing up, La La had only Zev. Her mother disappeared when La La was eight. Four years later, La La buried a pair of white cotton underwear at the bottom of the hamper because a constellation of mysterious brown stains convinced her she had an accident. Discovering the panties, Zev said, “You’re a woman now. No need to be ashamed.” Though it was ten at night, he drove to a supermarket and bought sanitary pads. Returning home, he bleached the underwear.
The next day, Zev arranged fruit—two lemons, an avocado, and loose purple grapes—on a table and demonstrated how a woman’s reproductive system worked. “Pretty clever design,” he said. He told La La it was one of the few things his mother had taught him in case he had a daughter. After Zev walked La La through two monthly cycles, they ate the grapes, and Zev made guacamole. “If you have cramps we can warm up a hot water bottle,” he said, while he mixed the garlic and avocado.
La La scooped a dollop of guacamole onto a chip and opened her mouth. “Delicious uterus,” she said, after she swallowed.
“Gourmet,” Zev said.
When La La was thirteen, Zev accompanied her to a department store to buy her first bra. “Treat her nice,” he said to a salesclerk, slipping the woman a twenty.
“That’s my job, sir,” the clerk said, but she stuck the folded bill down the front of her shirt and brought half a dozen bras to La La in a communal dressing room. La La faced a corner while taking off her shirt. She slipped her arms through a bra and struggled to hook the back.
“Here, let me do that for you,” the woman said. She yanked the clasp closed, then turned La La around and tugged on the bra straps to adjust them. Her fingers were clammy. La La selected two bras just so she didn’t have to feel the woman’s hands on her again.
As she rode home with her father, she kept her eyes on the department store bag in her lap. She wondered what it would have been like to shop with Elissa, instead. Her mother’s absence, familiar and heavy, squeezed the air from her lungs.
Zev caressed the back of her head with his hand. As if reading her mind, he said, “Not many fathers get to help their girls buy their first bras.”
La La clutched the top of the bag, trying to keep from crying. “You didn’t help me. That woman did.”
“I guess she wasn’t your first choice.”
“Sorry about that.”
“It doesn’t matter,” La La said.
The bag slid off her lap. Zev took her hand, and she let him, just that once.
Years afterward, when La La was in high school, Zev pleaded guilty to a burglary they committed together, so that the charges against La La would be dropped. Never mind that it had been La La’s fault they were caught.
He was never exactly a candidate for father-of-the-year, raising her to be a burglar, homeschooling her, and isolating her from other kids, but she can’t afford to think about all that now.
R.L. Maizes is the author of the short story collection We Love Anderson Cooper and Other People’s Pets. Her stories have aired on National Public Radio and have appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and have aired on NPR. Maizes was born and raised in Queens, New York, and lives in Boulder County, CO, with her husband, Steve, and her muses: Arie, a cat who was dropped in the animal shelter’s night box like an overdue library book, and Rosie, a dog who spent her first year homeless in South Dakota and thinks Colorado is downright balmy.
Music by Catlofe
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