Petland


1


Every day there’s new, weird trash in this overgrown field between my apartment complex and the interstate. A rusty wheelchair, baby clothes, cracked IKEA juice cups, an old iPod, mattresses—there one day and gone the next. Admiring the trash was a pleasant distraction as I walked through the long grass that made my ankles itch the rest of the day. Better than the stark white concrete of the interstate, waiting for a break in traffic, my blue Petland shirt already sweated through on hot days, my name tag whipping around. I’d run, hesitate, jump back and forth like a cat. Once across I’d spend the rest of the walk—down the embankment, across that forever parking lot—fixated on those interstate drivers who were surely laughing at me, joking with coworkers about how they once again saw that crazy woman darting across all those lanes.

At least once I got to work there were dogs. Flopping around. No matter how down I was, seeing a bunch of romping puppies always briefly lifted my spirits. Like a cocaine bump. Then I’d see those locked cages with metal grates for floors so their mess could filter through. The sores on their feet made them step so daintily to get to their sad empty water dish. Balls of poop stuck in their fur. I’d hose down the stench first thing. The worst part was rinsing these four-inch-long, hard rubber mats that we put in there for them to sleep on. We were told it’s too difficult to clean soft things. The way they snuggled up against these rubber mats, like they were made of memory foam, broke my heart every time.

I only realized they were all puppy-mill dogs when I Googled the store after I was hired and saw a petition to close it down. These dogs, sired by tortured slaves, bred to be the cutest goddamn things you’ve ever seen. But wild! They just fight and shit and fight in their own shit, which never passes completely through the metal grating. Gawk for two minutes and you’re smitten, but after the initial shock wears off, once the spell is broken, it’s like being forced to take care of other people’s children. I wanted to shake and slap them, but the effort of my care also made me protective. I’d often spend my breaks cuddling them, feeling their desperate little licks and bites and kicks as they tried to prove their love. My teeth began to ache from grinding.

I should have quit as soon as I saw those rubber mats. Definitely after I discovered they were from mills. Except I couldn’t. For financial reasons, yes, but I also came to crave the company of beings worse off than me, someone I could actually care for. And those mats and the forced confinement made sense. I felt sentenced to work there. If my apartment’s floor was switched to metal grating I could imagine being perfectly content sitting on a hard rubber island. Seeing these mistreated pups every day felt like exactly what I deserved.


2


There was this one dog. She came in maybe six months after I started. Some kind of a bulldog mix. Heavy bags weighed down her eyes, showing all the pink viscera under her skin. Her fur knotted up a day after brushing. Stump of a tail that wagged high and proud. Plus she had a terrible sense of showmanship. She kept her open-mouthed, tongue-exposed face away from the display window, which gave all the customers a perfect view of her butthole.

We weren’t allowed to name them so of course we always did. Dog names are always stupid—either too cute or too clever with the Mr. or Mrs. So-and-sos, or ironically classic like Fido, or too human like Steve, or purposefully inappropriate like a fat, ugly dog named Petunia. We called this one, the showman, Mark McGwire. Someone else named her. I’m pretty sure it was a sports thing. At least we didn’t stick to gender conventions.

Mark McGwire had no chance. When she first arrived she was actually pretty cute. Her eyes, the tail, and the open mouth were charming when she was tiny, like a baby in a business suit. When they first arrive we take their picture for the website and Mark McGwire’s didn’t stand out. Perhaps she wasn’t as symmetrical and regal as a sheltie pup, but she had the messy adorableness of a Jim Henson puppet. The minute she filled out though. Oh boy. Her price got reduced quicker than any dog since I’d gotten there. Less than a month in she went from twenty-eight hundred to nineteen hundred—these precise, non-rounded numbers as though there’s some exact value. And then down to sixteen hundred. Down to twelve. Like a painting that won’t sell. Like a stock in free fall. It didn’t help that this dog was female. I’ll bet if Mark McGwire were male he would have been snatched up and thought of as hilariously cute but, as a girl dog—yes, a bitch—she was hideous.

What’s also fascinating is that because the price of dogs like this is reduced—because of it—people don’t want them. They are seen as deficient. Reduced, deficient. And when, based on a corporate algorithm, we know nobody is going to take a dog, when the cost of upkeep outweighs the potential for profit and the dog becomes a financial burden, some winner from corporate comes, wearing a uniform, coveralls like a goddamn mechanic, and takes them. Where? I asked Penny, my boss, the first time one of these guys came. She shrugged and said, Back to the farm? Hard, hard Penny. I’d worked with Pennys before—hell, I might have been a bit of a Penny back when I still had a recognizable life, back when I laughed at people who lived in apartments that overlooked the interstate. So many Pennys in this world. Pennys were the lifers. They got the damn job done. I wept out back by the dumpsters during my break after the first time I saw a dog taken away. The tears wetting my cigarette filter. Exhaling with shaky breaths. Then going right back in to finish my shift.

I decided not to let the corporate mechanics take Mark McGwire away. She was the first dog I was certain wouldn’t get adopted and I couldn’t sit back and watch it happen. There was nothing else I could do. So I kept an eye on her price, hoping it would get below a thousand, which would at least change her theft from Grand to Petty Larceny. One day, though, when you don’t expect it, that price won’t be reduced any further. The mechanics give no warning.


3


I squirm to think of the tactics, though some of them ended up coming in handy for my Mark McGwire scheme. Basically it was implied during training that we were supposed to identify dumb people. To be on the lookout for customers who look bad with money and lazy—because why else wouldn’t they go rescue a dog?—and ask if they want to take a pup to the Cuddle Zone, which is a wooden cubicle with a bench. After exactly two minutes we were to bring over an information sheet and casually mention our financing plans. Ten percent down, no interest for six months. If the customer asked about puppy mills, which was rare, we were to furrow our brow and check the information sheet and show them how the dog came from “a farm in Iowa.” A licensed breeder, not a mill. Of course it’s from a mill! I always shout in my mind, as I tell them otherwise, because I need and want my job. We were also instructed to badmouth rescue shelters. If asked, we were required to say that shelters were “the real reason for pet overpopulation.” We were also encouraged, but not required, to call the dogs “furry babies,” though I never have, because I’d rather vomit.

And yet I still can’t bring myself to blame the customers. Despite the fact that I hate them for being stupid and lazy and buying these dogs, I can’t hold them entirely responsible because I can see they are powerless against those big puppy paws slapping against them and the sandpaper tongue against their cheek. Indeed, any time I doubted my desire to save Mark McGwire, all I had to do was give her a nuzzle to set myself straight. These idiotic prospective buyers really do just want something to love. They don’t concern themselves with the fact that each dog they buy induces the mill to breed three more, two of which will probably die unnaturally or be used strictly for breeding. They also don’t consider contingencies that could force them to default on a payment to a pet store and have to give up their dog.

There was one couple. One good, non-defaulting couple, who brought their corgi puppy back to the shop with them. I had apparently sold them their dog maybe four months before, when I first started working there. Four months is so long in this context—for me and the dog. I didn’t recognize the dog or the couple. The dog because it was now the size of a hatchback and the couple because they were just some white, dog-buying people. Plus I had sold so many dogs by then. One, two, three, up to six thousand a pop. So many. This couple told me that they took their corgi to a dog trainer and were informed that it wasn’t a corgi at all. It was a mastiff. Well shit, I said. It was all I could say. I didn’t know. I probably knew by then, actually, since I had started identifying breeds better. But even so the paperwork had said corgi. This thing could have eaten a corgi. When Penny walked by I made a desperate motion that got her attention. I pointed at the man, who had been doing all the talking. He exhaled and explained. Penny—hard, hard Penny—then, without so much as a sigh, said, We’ll take him back if you want. The couple and I both recoiled like she had shot a gun in the air. The man said, Well, no, we’re attached. Attached. Like a wart. Then what would you like us to do? Penny asked, including me in the us. The man sputtered and we waited.

When they left I asked Penny what would have happened if they’d returned the dog. She told me it would have stayed in the back of the store for two months and, if the couple didn’t reclaim it, it would “go back to corporate.” This information would later prove vital for my plans with Mark McGwire. I then asked her why we wouldn’t resell it and, in her distant, Penny way, she explained how the policy came about that we couldn’t sell a dog twice. Apparently, a long time ago at some other branch of our store, they had resold a dog after someone defaulted on it, and it happened to have been bought the second time by the original owner’s neighbor. The original owners were then forced to watch this once-cherished creature paraded around the neighborhood three times a day, and its barking kept them up at night. Finally the neighbor stole it back and kept the dog locked in the basement for a month before the dog’s legal owner caught on and called the police. The subsequent lawsuits resulted in our current policy. It’s almost like you shouldn’t sell sentient beings to the highest bidder, I wanted to reply but was far too afraid of Penny to actually say. Who knew that playing with emotional bonds for profit can mess with people? I also didn’t say.

I had known before I asked that the answer to my question would disturb me. But I was still glad to know. Something about being a part of an evil operation made me crave the details. Knowing exactly what I was doing gave my complicity structure and depth. My awareness made me feel more in control. Maybe in the same way that years ago I picked and picked at the cuticle of my thumb until it bled, and since then I have sustained the wound so now I need to feel it all the time, the pain becoming a kind of habit, or a comfort. Maybe on some level I know that if the wound were to heal and callous over I might feel the need to make another, one that might not be so safe.


4


Only women worked on the floor of the pet store. I’m not sure why this was. The only men involved with our Petland branch were the mechanics who took the drain-on-society dogs away; a veterinarian who gave vaccinations and treated the dogs’ kennel cough with—according to information I found online—powerful vitamins and stimulants that mask the symptoms until after they are adopted; and the owner, who did not often show his face.

When the idea to save Mark McGwire first began to percolate, there was only one fellow employee I didn’t mind, this girl just out of high school named Kelly who was hired a few months after I started. Overweight, enthusiastic, not very bright, and so easy to be around. She probably thought of me like a fun, inappropriate aunt. My cigarettes. Sunglasses covering hangovers. Making fun of Penny behind her back. But I wasn’t entirely sold on letting Kelly in on my plan to save Mark McGwire until I saw her weep the first time she witnessed the mechanics take an unsellable dog. I found her sobbing uncontrollably at the table next to the Coke machine where, if we felt like being depressed, we could eat our lunch. So I took her by the hand and led her back to the dumpsters, which is a more appropriate place to cry because you can really let go and nobody will see you. I led her back there feeling like a grandfather taking his grandson to his favorite secret fishing hole, sneaking glances at the kid to make sure she was appreciating the full weight of the moment. I doubt she appreciated it fully, but boy did she cry. I offered her a cigarette and she shook her head. I told her, Trust me.

There was so much puppy shit in those dumpsters. Soiled pee pads. Rotting dog food. The newspapers from under the bird and rabbit cages. Dead lizards. Cigarette butts littered the ground. It was like the tears were milked out of you back there. It emptied you. After crying by the dumpsters my tear ducts ached from overuse.

I propped open the door with one of those hard rubber mats we put in the cages. Kelly lit her cigarette and immediately began hacking out smoke and tears and snot. She gasped, Why don’t we just give them away to someone who can’t afford to buy them anyway? I patted her shoulder and was going to tell her some hard truths about capitalism, but held off. She added, Why do they have to die? Well sweetie, I said, trying on the endearment like I once tried on a maternity “Cozy Wrap” cardigan at Target, everything has to die. She looked at me angrily. I apologized.

In the awkward moments that followed, I happened to look down at the mat propping open the door. Something clicked and I realized how I could actually get away with stealing Mark McGwire. Until then I’d assumed that I’d wait too long, panic, shove her in my bag one night on my way out of the store, and then pray that my audacity would protect me.

But now I was inspired, and I blurted it all out to Kelly right away so I wouldn’t lose my nerve. I told her that Mark McGwire was obviously the next to go. She nodded sadly. I said that we had to save her. Kelly asked how. I explained that we needed to get someone to buy her and default on her payments so she was held in the back of the store, since there were no cameras back there. Kelly said nothing. Then, I went on, when I was on the closing shift I’d prop the door open and sneak over in the middle of the night and steal her. All I needed Kelly to do was find the person to buy and return the dog, since I had burned all my bridges.

Won’t it hurt their credit? was all she asked in response, tears still pouring down her face. Whose? I asked. The person who defaults on the dog, she answered. Who are you, Alan Greenspan? I asked. Who? she answered. I made something up about how the store’s financing system was in-house, and they wouldn’t report it to a credit agency if the dog was returned after only one missed payment. I didn’t want to tell her I hadn’t thought everything through, though what I said might well have been true. This easy blurring of financial truths was a product of my pre-Petland life, back when I approved loans on dubious property shares for people who couldn’t afford them. It wasn’t significantly less upright than selling overproduced animals to gift-starved husbands on Christmas Eve, but now, making my wage, I was at least in no danger of being bankrupt and charged with fraud. They couldn’t again take away my house and my partner since I no longer had a life worth repossessing. But if nothing else, at least I could put my ability to lie to good use with Kelly.

All she said when she finished her cigarette was, Okay I gotta get away from this. By this she meant the dumpster. But she didn’t say no to my plan. Back inside the store she could barely look at the dogs for the rest of the day.


5


From then on the Mark McGwire scheme became my obsession. When I’d put my hands over my face upon waking up, hoping this was not actually my life and feeling nearly certain that I could not face another day, Mark McGwire would come to mind and I’d fling myself out of bed. During a shift I’d run over the plan a hundred times in my head, playing out each step in excruciating detail—not honing the particulars so I wouldn’t get caught, but simply because the fantasy gave me pleasure. It reminded me of how I used to replay particularly good dates in my head the next day, back when I used to go out on dates.

I was aware that there were more “proper” channels to go through. I could contact PETA, let them know I was desperate enough to be of use to them. Or I could reach out to local animal advocates. A handful of polite protesters had gathered outside the store once. I could have tried to track them down.

These do-gooders could have funded the operation, found someone to buy and return Mark McGwire and locate a family to take her in after I stole her. But I couldn’t bring myself to go that route. I alone needed to save her. I didn’t want them to have Mark McGwire. I pictured her face on a website as a mascot for their cause. It didn’t feel any different than how her picture was currently posted on the pet store’s site. It would turn her into a symbol and define her worth, when she was Mark McGwire and nothing else to me. I needed to risk everything for her. I didn’t want the safety net of a justified arrest. I didn’t want praise.

I educated myself about the risks. If caught I would lose my job, probably become homeless, and face felony charges. I found a news story about a couple who once walked out of a pet store with a pug hidden under the man’s shirt. In addition to Grand Larceny, they were charged with Felony Retail Theft and Dognapping. Up to four years in prison. And you better believe that my store would prosecute to the fullest extent. I was aware of all this and still decided to proceed. One look at Mark McGwire and I knew I had no choice.


6


About a week later Kelly said she found someone to buy and return the dog. I did not like what that did to my heart rate. Who is it? I asked her. She said a friend, a guy. I kept asking if he was sure he knew what we were doing. She said he didn’t care about doing it as long as he didn’t have to spend his own money and could return Mark McGwire to the store after one month, so he didn’t get harassed by debt collectors. I nodded slowly. Apparently I was now worried about this guy’s credit score.

The kid came in a few days later. God, this boy. He did everything but wear a trench coat and sunglasses. He had these weird sideburns. The future of his credit rating was bleak anyhow. He paid the down payment with money I’d given to Kelly to give to him (money I raised by stealing an expensive tank filter and selling it online). When we finished with the paperwork, I slipped him my apartment keys and wrote my address on a discarded receipt.

That night I smelled her as soon as I opened my front door. I was immediately smitten. I found her under my bed, sleeping in a puddle of pee, and scooped her up and hugged her without even cleaning her off first. It was the happiest I had been in a long time.

Me and Mark McGwire had a grand time together after that. She breathed and drooled all over me. She went to the bathroom wherever she desired. She made perfect sense to me. Some nights I’d lie on the floor with my head on Mark McGwire’s little butt and I wouldn’t need rum or TV or anything. How could this dog possibly love me? I’d ask. And I wouldn’t care about the answer.

About a month later, right around when the boy’s first payment was due, Kelly told me she found someone to take Mark McGwire. Take her? I said and audibly gulped. Kelly looked confused. I was thinking I might just keep her, I said, though we both knew that two of our coworkers lived in my apartment complex. Kelly didn’t want to have to tell me I couldn’t. More the sidekick type, that one. I said, It’s not like they’re going to break down my door and search my house—she won’t be hunted like a fugitive. Kelly, whose practicality emerged at the most annoying times, replied, But won’t someone see you when you walk her? She was right, of course. I’d been smuggling out pee pads and handfuls of loose dog food in my purse. I’d cleaned a lot of shit off my floor. My apartment smelled like the pet store. Mark McGwire had only been outside in the dead of night. Still I gave it one more shot. Pee pads? I said. Kelly looked at her shoe and said, It’s a terrible life if you can’t go outside.


7


I began to understand suicide pacts. How you’d rather the other be dead if you can’t be together, how it’s worth it to die as long as nobody else can have your beloved. Of course I didn’t kill Mark McGwire or try to kill myself. I hadn’t lost all perspective. I was simply sad and had nothing. I did make Kelly give me the person’s address who was taking her though. I got an Uber to drive me, as though I could afford that. But the house looked appropriate. Clean. A fence. SUV in the driveway. The pain of knowing who would take her. Seeing someone else so much better equipped. The last thing I wanted to consider was if I would switch places with them. Take their house and their fence and big car and Mark McGwire. If I had it, I’d piss it away. I had it once and I pissed it away.


8


Six weeks after he bought her, the boy picked little Mark McGwire up from my apartment. Our last night together I cried so hard I threw up. Technically the store didn’t accept returns, but if we had no other choice or accidentally took one back, it meant the dog was slated for the mechanics, so we made sure I handled the transaction, and that Penny wasn’t working when he made the return. Penny had a knack for scaring people performing legitimate business. This boy would have peed his pants. The kennel where we stored the returned dogs was in a space behind the depressing break room. Cannot and will not describe the feeling of seeing Mark McGwire inside that little death chamber. That limbo. Her face when I shut and locked the door.

A month went by. Mark McGwire stared out of the kennel. I discovered my soul had the capacity to die even more each day. When I fed her I’d take an extra minute and scratch her sticky jowls, but wouldn’t allow myself to linger so I didn’t arouse suspicion. During one trip back there I realized that the limbo kennel faced the designated photo area, where we take pictures of the newly arrived pups before their fur becomes dull from cheap food and all that time spent under neon lights. Before the life goes out of their eyes. The vet who comes once a month also fancies himself a photographer and collects payments for both services. All his pictures, which are posted to the store’s website, have a soft-lit, hazy glow like a close-up in an old movie. The dogs end up looking like coiffed hostages, pleading to get rescued. The background for the photos is light pink and someone painted yellow stars to make it look like a sky at sunset. It’s perhaps supposed to look like heaven. This was what Mark McGwire was forced to look at all day. It seemed intended to rub her nose in her failure to be profitable.

One night when I closed the store I covered the hole in the doorframe with a matchbook so the back door didn’t latch. This is the same door that leads out to the dumpsters. I then snuck back in at two that morning. Mark McGwire was awake and staring out the door of her cage even at that late hour. Her tail thumped against the kennel wall when she heard my voice, which provided me with a painful stab of love beyond which I thought I was still capable of feeling. I scooped her out. So warm. Melted. Breath on my arm. I snuck back out with her and let the door click closed.


9


The next day when I saw Mark McGwire’s empty cage in the back room, it took me a few minutes to grasp that she was truly out of reach of the mechanics. For a second I thought I was having a panic attack, but then understood I was just happy.

It took almost a full day before anyone noticed she was missing. The police were notified. There is an ongoing investigation but nobody has yet been specifically targeted. Penny seems more stressed—another small victory. I swear she has eyeballed me more than usual ever since it happened, but maybe I am just hoping that she suspects me and can’t prove it. I hope that I am making her crazy.

I’d like to say I played it cool for the good of Mark McGwire. But after only a couple days I began spending most of my time outside of work riding the lonely A-21 bus clear across town so I could walk around Mark McGwire’s new neighborhood to try to catch a glimpse. For almost two weeks I didn’t see any sign of her. I began to worry that Kelly lied to me, that she kept Mark McGwire for herself and was trying to sell her, or was biding her time before returning her for the reward.

Finally, one day, just after dusk, minutes before I had to run the twelve blocks to catch the last bus back home, a woman poked her blond, permed head out the back door and looked carefully both ways, as though checking if the coast was clear. I hid behind a tree. She turned back inside and stooped down to pick something up. I ran away.

If she had turned around without Mark McGwire in her arms I wouldn’t have been able to take it. I also couldn’t see Mark McGwire again, not from that far away. But not knowing gave me a reason to come back, even if I have not since made the trip. It allowed for hope that all could still be well.


 

ALEX PICKETT is the author of a novel, The Restaurant Inspector, and his stories have appeared in The Southern Review, Subtropics, The Rupture, and elsewhere. He lives in London and his website is rapickett.com.