Traffic was backed up all along the Westbank Expressway, so Boone didn’t even have to pull over to adjust the sign. “Goddam fuckers,” he said, trying to think how many days had passed since the last time the sign was down.
ALBINO DOBERMAN. CALL 613-7370.
Boone had made the sign from a plank of plywood that had fallen from someone’s window and propped it up against a police barricade that had been left behind at some point during the storm. He erected it there on the breakdown lane of the expressway because it was the direction everyone had to go sooner or later if you wanted to get food or new furniture or appliances to redo your home. It was prime advertising space if you had an albino Doberman, post-Katrina, and it wasn’t your own.
The dog had first appeared to Boone one night as he sat in what remained of his living room, staring at the tarp that hung in place of what used to be his living room wall. The tarp was murky and transparent, and reminded him of a giant shower curtain especially when it rained. He sat there on the couch, turning the propane lantern up and down, trying to decide if he really needed it, since he wasn’t reading or even thinking anymore. With the tarp as the only barrier between him and the outside, Boone kept debating whether he wanted anyone out there to know that he was there, but he couldn’t stop himself from turning his house into a blinking beacon in the center of his dark, abandoned neighborhood. The neighborhood had mostly been spared, aside from the wind damage and water from the rain that continued to leak in through new gaps and missing roofs. But it was a neighborhood of slab houses, and no one was interested in coming back to a slab, even if it hadn’t taken floodwater after the storm.
He bowed down to the form. The dog’s attack was fast, cutting through the tarp with his mouth, his nose and teeth poking through, then disappearing again when Boone threw himself flat against the floor.
Turn the light on, and the tarp reflected the light back at him in a blinding flash. Turn the light off, and he could make out the rare dots of light on the other side, off in the distance. Or maybe he imagined them.
The dog appeared against the tarp like the blurred white form of a ghost but it didn’t scare him. Boone didn’t believe in ghosts, even with all the dead people in the city around him. And if he did believe in them, they weren’t white and Caspery like this thing that showed up under the moonlight when he turned the light down. Boone turned the lamp on again, and the form disappeared. Off again, and it materialized again. He sat watching it for a while, like bad reception on a TV, then drifted off to sleep.
On the second night that the dog appeared, Boone crept across the floor to it. He bowed down to the form. The dog’s attack was fast, cutting through the tarp with his mouth, his nose and teeth poking through, then disappearing again when Boone threw himself flat against the floor. He could feel his heart beating against the floor, and stayed there for a while, as if he was pinned to the ground. Boone felt alive for the first time since the storm. Then the dog whimpered as he crept slowly back across the floor to the couch. It was like that every night after. Boone sitting alone in his dark house, waiting for the white dog to appear. “Well, there you are,” he’d say when the dog arrived and the dog would whimper in response. They both knew now not to go any nearer.
They were neighbors now—he and the albino animal—and he wanted to know where it had come from. He didn’t remember seeing the dog before the storm. He would have remembered, he hoped, but maybe not, since back then he had a house and a job and neighbors he didn’t like very much who got all of his attention. He had been waiting for years for the neighborhood to change, but it had gone in the opposite direction. It got the best of him. Every idling car on the street, every tooting horn of someone who may or may not have been dealing. But now all of that was gone.
Amy plays with the paper napkin at her place setting and looks around the restaurant. It is girls’ night out, the first since the storm, and there are just the four of them whose homes in the outskirts hadn’t been destroyed, or in Amy’s case, it had been destroyed, but she and her husband had money enough that they could return. The others from their group are still out of town, talking about staying for the school year, and raising children somewhere cleaner, where they didn’t have to worry about _the element_. By the element, Amy knows they mean the blacks.
“Charlotte says she found a nice Mexican girl to watch the kids,” someone says.
“She says the girl doesn’t mind leaving her own at home.” These are Amy’s friends. Or were Amy’s friends, before the storm. Now she watches them like a foreign film, curiously detached, with only occasional glimmers of understanding.
They had debated about where to meet tonight, even though most of the restaurants are still only serving burgers now, the Katrina special. The idea was to get out of their own neighborhoods, to see how the rest of the city was faring, and to help out, really, by splurging on a meal. Splurging on meals has become commonplace, now that no one has the capacity to cook. Amy had suggested Mona’s, but the others don’t like middle-eastern food. Which means they’ve never had it. This used to amuse her, but she’s recently lost her patience. Instead they settled on Praline Connection a block away. In between, they passed a crowd of people gathered on the sidewalk with laptops, pirating a wireless signal from somewhere nearby.
The restaurant had always made Amy uncomfortable because the black staff dressed in suits and white gloves to serve fried chicken and gumbo, like good old step’n’fetchits. Now she’s uncomfortable because the entire staff is white. No one else seems to notice—not at her table, not at the tables around them, half-filled, it seems, with people here to work from out of town. While her friends go on about their friends’ Mexican help, Amy reaches into her purse and pulls out the photo of the Doberman. She’s waiting to change the subject, waiting until the conversation dies down about hardworking labor their husbands say you can pick up at Lee Circle in the morning. “There’s a sign over on the Westbank expressway,” she says. It surprises her that anyone is listening. “Someone found an albino Doberman,” she says. “Someone’s trying to find its home.”
Her friends are all waiting now for the rest of the story, but all Amy has is the picture, pulled from the fridge of her own flooded out home. She isn’t sure she can make anyone understand.
“Well, that’s strange,” someone says finally, assuming that is what Amy is looking for, someone to acknowledge that something—everything—has gone wrong. It was helpful now and then to be reminded that none of this was usual.
“I think I know the owner,” she says, passing the photo around. She had gone back into her moldy house, something she’d been avoiding, three days after seeing the sign. It was odd that the Doberman was what had finally brought her to do it. On her way out to Lakeview she had anticipated a greater opportunity to salvage things, but in the end, the photo was all she took. Some of the walls had caved in from soaking in the water. All of her books had floated off the shelves and shed their pages, which were now distributed through the house, stuck to the floors and the lower walls. Everything was spattered with mold like a Pollack painting. She had worried that if she got started, she would never leave again.
Across the table someone raises an eyebrow at her, and she has to explain.
“The pool boy,” she says. “He kept telling me about his dog.”
“Why was he talking to you about that?”
It’s a good question. But Amy isn’t prepared to answer it. She liked talking with the boy. Something about him made her feel good about herself, although she knew that she never would have spoken to him out on the street. When he was in her house, it was different, because she trusted the company that sent him. Yet that didn’t explain why, when he gave her the photo of his dog, she put it on the fridge, like the photo of a nephew or a close friend’s son.
“One day he brought this photo with him,” she says. She thinks about it now. “I guess he wanted me to know he wasn’t making it up.”
They’re waiting for the rest of the story.
“I never knew his name.”
“Call him,” someone suggests. “Call the service.”
“They’re gone,” she says, shaking her head. Would they even know who he was if they answered the phone? But what she’s thinking is how odd it seems now, to have lived in a world of pool boys giving photos, without her ever even asking his name.
“There was a stray rabbit running loose on our street when we got back,” one of her friends offers. “Someone called it in.”
It’s funny, the things you can get used to after a while.
Tonight, the albino Doberman is lying half under the plastic, and Boone notices for the first time the mousey pink of his eyes. He puts the food out each afternoon, when it is still light out, when he knows there’s no chance of the dog greeting him. The dog spends his days hiding somewhere, but Boone hasn’t yet figured out where or why. He watches from the couch and turns out the light. The dog sighs and squints in his direction. Boone thinks about mice and nightfall, and the way he caught them scurrying along the edges of the room one night when he came in with the lantern on high.
“Hey, baby,” Boone says. “Can you even see me?” He’s noticed the dog seems calmer when he speaks to him. So he does, telling him stories about what the neighborhood used to be like, before the storm.
“I bought this house when I was going to get married,” Boone says out loud. He’s grateful the dog doesn’t want to hear the rest of that story.
“That store on the corner,” Boone tells him, “that used to be open, and people were in an out all day long.” He considers it for a minute and adds, “Dogs too. There would be dogs waiting outside. And underneath the no loitering sign, there was a gang of motherfuckers who made our lives miserable.” Boone laughs, “Well, no, that’s not entirely true.” It was easier to think so, but things were never as simple as all that.
There had been a shooting one day, right at that spot, eighteen rounds fired and just one hit, into a kid’s shoe. Not into his foot, just into his shoe. Boone remembers walking down the street after the last shots were fired, seeing the whole neighborhood outside for once, crouched behind cars with their own pistols drawn. It was strange that this is how he remembered them now and even stranger to miss them. He catches himself on the phrase, once the smoke had cleared, because he remembers there actually had been smoke and it actually did clear. Then one of the men beneath the no loitering sign locked eyes with him and said, “That was messed up!” And everyone swung back into the normal rhythm of their day.
The albino dog takes a deep breath, as if he’s remembering something too.
Slowly the dog slips under the tarp and creeps closer, his head bent low, graceful as a deer. Boone doesn’t move as the dog sniffs his feet and legs and the empty cushion next to him on the couch, then before he knows it the dog is curled in a ball, with his head pressing against Boone’s lap.
They sit completely still like that, facing the blur that remains of the city, as their eyes adjust to the absence of light. “Well, look at us,” Boone wants to say, but he stays silent now, not wanting to ruin this moment, because in all his life he’s never seen anyone so desperate to trust.
Ken Foster’s books include the memoir The Dogs Who Found Me, the short story collection The Kind I’m Likely to Get, and the essay collection Dogs I Have Met: And the People They Found. His work has been translated into German, Arabic, Turkish, and Japanese, and has appeared in publications such as Salon, Fence, Bark, Flaunt, Bomb, The Village Voice, the New York Times, and elsewhere. He has received fellowships from Yaddo, The New York Foundation for the Arts, and The Louisiana Division of the Arts. Currently, he teaches at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and is at work on a collection of fiction and a nonfiction book.
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