His heart knocked like a fist against his breastbone as his own knuckles beat against the heavy metal door. A desperate yapping came ricocheting toward him from inside. He bounced on his feet to keep warm; he hadn’t imagined a March cold front could sweep this far down into central Texas. And no one told him the door would be locked.
Then, the snick of a deadbolt, and the metal door scraped along the jamb and Bobby was inside, still bouncing and breathing into his hands but inside now and ready to work.
The man who’d opened up for him said, “What the hell you doing here so early?” He had to shout over the voices of the caged and anxious dogs.
“Just like to be early,” Bobby said louder, unused to speaking over echoing animals. “First day and all.”
“Well shit, man. I stay away from this place long as I can. Cut out early, I say. Michael Sirus. Call me Mikey.”
Bobby said his own name back, and they shook hands, and Mikey cocked his head toward the back. Bobby looked instead at the man’s face, a thin pink scar ripped from the left cheekbone down to the lip as though disappearing into Mikey’s mouth. A long and cocky grin.
“You ever done shelter work before?” Mikey said.
“Nah,” Bobby said.
“Why start now?” Mikey took them into little break room, the cinderblock walls there a buttery yellow, all the little pores and cracks of the cement blocks puttied up with thick paint. They leaned against the counter and Mikey poured coffee into two Styrofoam cups. Bobby shook his head and held up one hand, but Mikey said, “You’ll want this, trust me. I like to hit the whole pot with a few shots of Irish. Too damned cold lately for coffee alone.”
Bobby smiled but kept eying the scar. He took the offered cup though he didn’t want the whiskey. Didn’t want to soften his mind against the work ahead.
“Seriously,” Mikey was saying. “Why work here?”
“I like animals,” Bobby said. Mikey laughed and looked into his coffee cup. But Bobby said, “No, no shit. They fascinate me.”
“You’re gonna hate it here.”
“Sergio said the only people who work here are the ones who love animals,” Bobby said.
“That little Mexican? Don’t get me wrong, I’m no racist, but that guy, he just gets a kick out of hiring gringos to work for him.” Mikey slugged the last of the cup and poured another. “He’s right, though. I dig animals. Big fan of cats. But that’s why you’ll hate working here. It’s killing them that gets to you.”
Bobby looked at him. He set down his coffee cup, shifted his weight. Then, carefully, he said, “Huh?”
“Euthanasia, Bobby. We all gotta do it. Simple as math. Only got three dozen cages, but we get in something like half a dozen animals a week, and we give away maybe two or three a month, rotate another fifteen with the other shelters in the area. That’s five or six too many, Bobby. We put down an animal or two a week.”
“Jesus,” Bobby said.
“Yeah,” Mikey said. “We keep friendly by sharing the guilt—only person here who doesn’t give the shots is Ma, the old receptionist.”
“Jesus,” Bobby said again. But he had counted on this.
Mikey had been right: Sergio and a guy named Elmo were the only Hispanics in the shelter. Sergio himself addressed it in the break room the first time his and Bobby’s schedules overlapped. He’d said, “Eh, gringo, why you wanna work here with a couple of Mexicans? That ever keep you up at night? Knowing you work for a wetback?”
“Your shirt looks pretty dry to me,” Bobby’d said.
Sergio had laughed. He said, “You’re all right, Bobby. I thought you’d be like every other prejudiced gabacho in this town, but you’re all right.” Then he’d left. Bobby had refilled his styrene cup and turned to the empty doorway and said, “How do you know I’m not, you fucking spic.” His words were calm. He tried them again. “Fucking spic.” It still wasn’t right. So he’d practiced at home as well.
But Sergio and Elmo, whom Bobby never met, they were it. Everyone else was white. Bobby liked this, liked working for a Mexican. Up in Normal, Illinois, there had been a black woman, LaShelle, who hired him as an exterminator. In the long winters, when the world froze over, he would lay in bed at night and dream of fucking her, not because he liked her but because she was black. He’d heard, back in high school when kids still spoke this way, that it was all pink in the middle, and he tried imagining that, her dark legs spread to show the little strip of magenta in all her wiry hair. He couldn’t get aroused. He tried imagining himself angry with her, imagined beating her, raping her. Nothing worked. He didn’t feel anything. Most nights he got bored and watched a nature program instead, ragged hyenas gnawing a zebra while Bobby cleaned his insecticide tanks and spray nozzles.
In the spring, he read the angry history books the Revisionists wrote, struggling against the illogic when they said the Holocaust had never happened, when they explained how six million Jews had scammed the world. He read that the Jews killed Jesus; Bobby didn’t care about Jesus, or about Jews. He read that the Jews had all the money, but Bobby had a home and never went hungry. It was all one big conspiracy that Bobby was outside of. But he had studied; he’d tried to learn hate because it was the easiest emotion he could imagine feeling, the only one he thought would ever get through.
Then, in the summer, when the fire ants marauded north to Normal and invaded the peaceful suburbs with their red Texas fury, he would strap on the tanks of poison LaShelle gave him, and he would slip into the growing heat to spray the world in chemical fog, killing everything, even that part of himself that knew, knew he could never be a racist no matter what he said, or studied, or killed.
There had been a news story, carried along the backs of the fire ants, trailing north from Texas. A man, a black man, tied to a truck in Jasper and dragged through the streets. Daylight. Suburbs. Horror.
As a boy in Normal, Illinois, Bobby had a dog: Sandy when they adopted her, same color as Bobby’s hair. A Chow mix with a punched-in face and a curled-up tail that never, ever stopped wagging. Bobby changed her name to Lady after the dog in the Disney movie, and he watched her shatter the milk bones he threw her after dinner, and he walked her through the thin woods outside Normal, hoping the dog would sniff out interesting carcasses abandoned in the woods.
She got spooked in storms, kept trying to jump the fence in the back yard. His parents had rigged her on a runner, one of those chains clipped to a line high overhead, each end bolted to a tree so every time the thunder beat the sky she could dash about in a panic but still not clear the fence. Now, instead of walking Lady, he just stood over the fence and watched her, fascinated, because sometimes, straining against the pull of her runner so hard she’d raise herself up on hind legs and stay that way for half an hour, she’d bark at every Hispanic that walked their streets. Never the white neighbors, sometimes the black neighbors—but she definitely had it in for the Mexicans, the Ecuadorians, and the two old Puerto Ricans from New York. She strained against her leash, pulling the runner taut like a bow string, herself the fingers holding the tip of some invisible arrow, and she barked and barked at the Hispanic neighbors who passed their house. Bobby never knew why. But he wanted to find out. She was a good dog in every respect he knew a dog could be, so he reasoned that hatred must be good too.
When he was grown and ready, he followed the trail of the fire ants south, to Jasper, but found nothing to help him, so he went then to the cities—Houston that hot and muggy fall, San Antonio in the gray winter—then north and west, to the hill country. Peaceful, but teeming with ants.
* * *
“What’s with the scar,” Bobby said in the break room on his second day. Mikey was spiking the day’s second pot of coffee.
“Wondered when you’d ask. Came from the job. We had a real bitch of a cat once. Came in spitting and kicking and throwing one hell of a fight. She popped loose from Elmo and scrammed, shoom, right up the goddamn wall. You look at these walls.” Bobby looked, the yellow paint a slick skin on the cinderblocks. “I still don’t know how she did it. Anyway, by the time we found her, she’d made it into here somehow—” He walked to the refrigerator and swiped his hand back near the wooden cabinet overhead. “Got up into that cabinet there, damned if I know how, and when I went in to get her, she shot out right at me and wrapped herself around my head. Elmo trying to get her off, and her trying to stay on, kicking at me to get a better grip. It was like she was digging a trench right in my fucking face.” He rubbed a finger along the scar, back and forth, remembering the cat’s claw there. “Lucky there was just the one deep runner.”
“Did you kill her?” Bobby said.
“Would you believe we found a home for that little bitch?” Mikey said. “Tame as a goddamn lap cat now. Fat, too.”
“How do you know?” Bobby said.
“I’m the one who took her home,” Mikey said—a grin, long and jagged where it spread from his slit lips to the long pink line in his cheek. “She’s my cat now. Keep your enemies close—who said that?”
“What’d you name her?”
“Still just call her Bitch.”
“And she’s tame now?”
“More or less. Every now and then she gives me this look, though, like she’s reminding me what she did. Like she wants me to know she could do it again.” He laid his finger along the scar and held it there.
“I put the lock on the cabinet up there,” he finished. “Sergio wanted to nail it shut, but I said the lock would be more practical. Brought the lock in myself.” He smiled again, that long torn grin, and he raised his Styrofoam cup to Bobby. “That’s also when I started bringing in the whiskey.”
Spring in Texas was where northern summers come from, the heat stirring early before waving off the hills and rising up the continent. Bobby stood outside his tiny apartment in the forgotten center of town. Early as April, already in shirt-sleeves, that last winter front long since swept away. He drank a bittersweet cocktail of Southern Comfort in beer. A neighbor in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt stoked the coals in his tiny porch grill and sent over a plume of fajita smoke. Bobby looked over and the two men nodded to each other.
“Is it always this warm in April?” Bobby said.
“Warm?” the darker man said. “It’s barely sixty degrees out. Still feels like winter to me.”
“What’s it normally get to?”
“Shit, it oughta be seventy degrees already. Wish it was. I’m freezing out here.”
“Hm,” Bobby said. He ran his shoe through the dirt on his slab of porch, hoisted his spiked beer, and walked out into the shabby complex yard. He’d seen a mound off in one corner, and he went to find it.
It lay like a dried fecal lump cast out from the frigid ass of a dinosaur. Prickly with tiny dirt clods, pocked with holes, still and asleep. He’d not seen ant hills like this in Illinois. He toed it, but nothing happened. He set down his beer and cast about, looking for a stick. One lay off near the sidewalk, and he got it and set to poking, dissecting the mound. The bare brittle grass crackled behind him, and he spun on the balls of his feet with the stick up, but it was only the neighbor walking up to him.
“They sleep until it gets hot,” he said.
“Fire ants—I know.”
“Little bastards,” the neighbor said. “Can’t kill em for shit.”
“You can try,” Bobby said. He turned back to the mound and poked deeper.
“Hey, you want a bite of fajita, man? My old lady makes some mean seasoning, straight from her mama’s mama back home. Good stuff.”
“No,” Bobby said.
“Huh,” the neighbor said. He stood a moment, then left. Bobby poured his beer over the strewn mound, stood up, went back into his own apartment.
“Spic,” he said, to try the word out again, the first time since Sergio. It still didn’t feel right. Nothing felt right.
When he was four, he’d stood watching Lady at the fence one hot afternoon, her still a puppy and running in circles free because she wasn’t yet big enough to jump in the storms. He’d stood a long time. Finally, she’d run to the fence for a pat on the head, and he looked down not at her but at his own feet. They were covered in a crawling black fur, only it wasn’t fur, it was ants. He’d stood directly in an ant hill all that time, and now the ants had swarmed his feet, determined if not to move him off then to devour him there. He’d screamed, and his mother had come and collected him kicking and punching at her, and she’d set him, clothes and all, in the tub for a baking soda bath. His feet swelled up and turned a cranberry color for two days, and he cried the whole time, but really, he’d never felt a thing.
* * *
Mikey fiddled with an old tool box, extracting syringes and bottles, explaining while he worked. The cat squirmed in Bobby’s tight, thin arms. They both wore powdered latex gloves.
“With cats, we use this,” holding a bottle, “a sedative, measured out according to what the cat weighs. Milder than the killer, and we don’t have to use it, necessarily, but you can feel how that cat is ready to pop right now, just shoot out your arms like it had a bottle rocket up its ass. The first sedative makes it easier.”
“It?” Bobby said. “The cat’s a he, isn’t he?”
“The cat’s about to get dead, Bobby. It’s an it. That’s how I work. Got it?”
Mikey tapped the needle, then reached over Bobby’s straining arms and jabbed the cat in the rump; the cat kicked in violent thrusts and twisted its head out of Bobby’s fist. It bit Bobby’s hand in the soft meat between the thumb and the first finger, and it stayed there, driving its tiny teeth deeper into Bobby’s flesh through the latex.
“Hoh-oh, shit,” Mikey said. He laughed. “Hang in there, Bobby.”
Bobby hung in there.
Mikey had drawn out another syringe and poked it into another bottle. “We use a wicked little blend of sedatives on the dogs, because they’re bigger usually. I don’t know exactly what the mix is. They send it to us ready made. I just do my end with the needles.”
The cat went limp, its jaw relaxed and its heartbeat slowed to match its long, heavy breath. The air was hot on Bobby’s hand, hot already from the wound, the blood collecting under the second skin of the glove.
“This here,” Mikey said, “is the nasty stuff. Pentobarbital.” He flicked the needle and squirted a bit of the drug into the air. It landed on the cat’s face and ran into its closed eyes. “Cats, they get a hundred and twenty milliliters of this stuff per kilogram of body weight. Stops the heart cold in just under thirty seconds. But dogs—” He jabbed the new needle in, depressed the plunger, held it a moment, and slid it out again. “—Dogs only get twenty milliliters per kilo. Now why the hell is that? Dogs get more sedative but less juice in the end?”
Bobby had been listening, learning, and he’d missed the moment. What used to be a limp and sleeping cat was now a cat collapsed, a body with a void inside.
“Damn it,” Bobby said.
“What?” Then, seeing, Mikey said, “Yeah, it’s tough. I was so shaken up my first time I couldn’t even cry until I got home. It was like I’d died, too.”
Bobby looked at him.
“Yeah,” Mikey said with his eyebrows raised, his head bobbing in affirmation, “I cried. I bawled. Everyone bawls their first time. You will too, later today or sometime tonight I guess.”
Bobby stared, first at Mikey and then back down at the cat.
“But the thing you got to remember is, it’s just a cat, Bobby. Just a cat. Or just a dog. Or whatever. It don’t matter. With me, it’s a kind of release, you know. You’re saving them. You just gotta keep saying that, Bobby. Or something like it. You gotta have a gimmick. Loving death, being a merciful angel for these little things, that’s my gimmick.”
“What other gimmicks are there?” Bobby said.
“Oh, lots. Jeanine, she hates them. Not really, but she makes a hell of a show of it—cusses up a storm when she’s in here. And Elmo, he always sticks them backward so he don’t have to see their faces. Shit like that.”
“You got a girl?” Mikey said.
Bobby shook his head.
“Get one. A girl can help, you know, after doing this shit.”
“I wouldn’t know what to do,” Bobby said.
Mikey laughed. “Didn’t say you had to love her, Bobby. Now here,” he said, waving at Bobby to retreat, “back up. They usually shit and piss all over you when they go, and we’ve gotta clean you and the rest of this place up. Then, I’ll go buy you a beer over at the `Coon.”
Later, the gloves stripped away but the chemical smell still hanging on their raw hands and in their scrubbed shirt-sleeves, Bobby and Mikey drank beers at the Raccoon Saloon. After his fourth, Bobby could speak. He said, “I can’t feel anything.”
“I know,” Mikey said. “My lips are numb.”
“No,” Bobby said, “I don’t have feelings.” Mikey pulled at his lips, let a finger trace the scar, and Bobby dropped it. He said instead, “I think I’d like to try my first time with the needles next week.” Mikey said sure and slugged his beer. Bobby said, “I think I’d like to try it alone.”
“Slow down, partner,” Mikey said. He laughed, then he didn’t laugh. “You’ll want to give it time, Bobby. Take it slow.”
“I know,” Bobby said. “I know.”
* * *
The spring of Bobby’s eighth grade year had been frenzied with wintry storms, cold fronts bashing down from Lake Michigan or across the plains. The earth froze, thawed, percolated mud until it froze again. And in a lull one week, as the sun warmed a runny earth, Bobby had walked his street each day with his hands over his nose. There’d been a smell in the neighborhood for days, and it was getting worse. His parents complained of the smell; his neighbors called once a day. Finally, Bobby’s father sent him around back to see if Lady had killed or shat something foul enough to pollute the neighborhood. “When’s the last time you even saw that dog, Bobby?” his father had asked. But back at the fence, staring into the wide pen that ran behind the house, Bobby couldn’t find his dog. He whistled into the wet air. He climbed over the fence for the first time in a long time and started clapping and calling Lady’s name. He walked to the tree near the house, where Lady’s plastic-coated runner was bolted. The other end ran into a cluster of trees by the back side of the fence. Bobby walked with the runner in his fist, the cord slipping through his fingers with a slow plastic burn, until he entered the trees.
Lady must have been desperate in the previous storm. She’d scrabbled up the tree and between two high limbs, squatting in the crotch to jump and clear the fence in spite of her runner. But it had held. She’d snapped against the tug of the runner and fell almost to the ground. But only almost. The runner had stopped her. She swung now from the leash, a week later, her head to one side and her black tongue fat and drained to the gray of over-chewed gum, hanging out her open jaw. Blood had crusted against her teeth and around the little fog-blue marbles of her dead, bulging eyes. There was a little pile of shit, nuggets covered over in a blacker liquid in the grass beneath her, and her piss had matted the fur around her hind legs and her tail. Flies crawled around her nose and inside her ears, probably working their way inside to lay little sacks of maggots on the soft folds of her brain.
He screamed. But it was like the day of the ants, the scream a noise issued from his throat like an alarm, for he found he did not love this dog, nor did he hate that the dog had died. There was nothing but a situation that called for alarm, and this, in turn, alarmed him. Even at the age of thirteen.
His parents came out, and his father crawled over the fence and carried Bobby out to his mother, then got a hatchet and went back in to hack down the runner cord. Lady fell with a heavy flump. Bobby scrambled away from his mother and tried to climb back over the fence, tried to go and stand over the body, to see more clearly what the decomposition was like, what the insects were doing with the corpse. But his mother caught him, and Bobby was trapped on the outside of the fence. He couldn’t get any closer, not to Lady, not to anything. He looked at the dog. He sniffed, closed his eyes.
Behind him, his mother touched his shoulder and squeezed it, then laid her forehead against his back, and said, “I know, I know, I know.”
* * *
Mikey scraped a thin fingernail over the scar, down, back, down again, as though keeping the wound fresh.
“Remember,” he said, “they seem pretty docile at first, but they’ll get you.” Bobby nodded, but Mikey went on. “No shit,” he said. “I knew this girl once, got down close to a mongrel to kiss it—she’d do shit like that, kiss them right on the lips—and this little mutt snipped up at her and bit her clean through the lip. Right here, a canine on either side. Clean through.”
“Shit,” Bobby said.
“And you know what that chick did? She went and put a ring through it, like she’d pierced her lip herself. I’m not lying. Told that story like she was proud.”
Bobby nodded. He snapped on two latex gloves, and he said, “Did you fuck her?”
“That chick? Nah.”
“Lesbian,” Bobby said, nodding again.
“I don’t think so. Shit Bobby, you’re so prejudiced, man.”
“Not really,” Bobby said. By he was trying. It was the only way. Distance everybody, distance everything, keep it all clean. Clean right through.
“So,” Mikey said, shaking his empty Styrofoam cup. Late in spring and still the whiskey in the coffee. He sucked at the last drops, pitched the cup to the garbage can. “You ready for this?”
“I’m going in alone?” Bobby said.
“You said you wanted to.”
“Yeah,” Bobby agreed. It needed to be this way.
Mikey shook his head, walked through the door to the hall, and Bobby followed, the two of them haunting the afternoon shadows gray as the wire cages. Mikey unlocked cage number eight, reached in, and pulled out a whimpering dog. He closed the cage, pocketed his thick ring of keys, and walked back through the echoes of the halls to the break room, alone.
The Labrador half-breed still had the bone-shaped tag someone had clipped to her collar: Licorice. Named, made real; abandoned, dead. She knew it, her end foreseen in the same animal foreboding that warned dogs of impending thunderstorms. Her haunches spread low in a brace against the stained concrete floor, and when Bobby took hold of her collar to coax her into the room, she added her own stain, the watery stream of rancid urine spreading under her rump and away from her tail. Bobby’s sweat mixed with the powder in the latex glove. Licorice whined once but then hushed, concentrating instead on scrabbling her claws against the concrete, seeking purchase in her own pool of stink. Bobby’s keys slipped and hit the floor, and Licorice jumped once, her hind quarters and then her forelegs coming off the ground so her whole body rose straight up in Bobby’s grip like an armadillo beneath a moving pick-up. It was enough. Bobby hauled her in swinging by her neck, and she skidded, her paws clattering and sliding on the floor, and Bobby kicked the door shut. She was inside.
Bobby put his hands on his hips and looked at her. “You little bitch,” he said.
He left Licorice in her corner, where again she whined and squatted on the floor, refusing ever again to move. Bobby opened the old tool case on the table and drew out the fat plastic syringe and two bottles. One was half-full with fluid the color of a bourbon-and-coke. The other bottle was smaller, glass wrapped in a paper druggist’s label. Bobby pushed the needle through the rubber seal on the first bottle and pulled on the plunger, drawing up the sedative. He muttered, said, “Cocktail hour, sweetheart.” He wanted a drink himself. Just not a bourbon-and-coke. Not an Irish coffee from the break room pot. Something stronger. Something to put him under.
Bobby squatted now, mimicking Licorice, and approached her in low shuffling motions. “Hey, bitch, hey little nigger bitch,” he said, low in his chest so the foreign string of words hummed. “Come here you little black bitch, you kike bitch, you Arab bitch. Here little faggot bitch. Come here bitch.”
Licorice shuffled a bit, too. She lowered her head and whined. She stank of urine, and Bobby saw she had pissed the floor in here, too.
He reached in as though to pet her, took her collar again but did not pull. He just sat there, her collar in his gloved hand, both of them panting. He held her, his eyes and her collar: she stayed put. Her breathing slowed. She resigned, sighed, and lay on the floor with her jaw flat on the concrete, her piss soaking into her fur. Bobby reached around her and slipped the needle easily into the muscle of her hip, depressed the plunger, sent the murky amber into her.
Hatred, he once had thought, would be just that easy. Find it somewhere and inject himself with it. Love was far more difficult; it had to be grown from the inside, like a mold, like those psychedelic mushrooms hidden under the wide clay patties of cow shit down here. Hate—and death—came from out there somewhere, accessible. But so far, it hadn’t been so easy. So it had come to murder, a cold gray room with buckets and antiseptic and death in a syringe.
Licorice sighed again. She looked up at him without moving her head. Bobby retreated, watched her a moment, then stood and leaned against the janitor’s table to wait. He closed his eyes. He listened to his breath, to her breath; the heartbeat punching in his chest was hers. He counted them, seventy, one-fifty, two-fifty, his heart rate increasing each minute until, when he had counted four hundred eighty beats, he knew about five minutes had passed. He opened his eyes. Licorice slept, her breathing heavy and her own heart rate slowed to a peaceful thump.
He turned and took out the smaller syringe, jabbed it quickly into the smaller bottle, and sucked up the poison inside. He depressed the plunger, waited for the squirt, and walked back to Licorice asleep on the floor. He took a long breath, said “You fucking bitch,” and stabbed her with the needle. He called her a little white-trash whore, a wetback poonanny that deserved what she got; his voice thin and artificial but his pulse alive, his blood its own poison racing beneath his flesh, seeking escape. His chest tingled, dead-alive with that prickling sensation of something asleep having just woken up. He could feel it in there. An army of fire ants tramping across the inside of his sternum, the sensations he’d never had across his feet as a kid now erupting inside his ribcage. His own tongue fat in his mouth. Everything around him moving, things he’d never felt before. He licked his lips then left his thick tongue between them, a syrupy trail of saliva falling hard and fat against Licorice’s slick black fur. He tried a smile and found one, losing it again to his concentration but knowing at last that he had a smile, sharp but genuine, and from there, who knew what he would discover. He felt her side. Her heart had stopped forever, and for one of those thirty seconds, his had, too.
Samuel Snoek-Brown is a writing teacher and a fiction author, though not always in that order. He's also the production editor for Jersey Devil Press. His work has appeared in Ampersand Review, Red Dirt, Red Fez, and SOL: English Writing in Mexico. An excerpt from his Civil War novel, Hagridden, appeared in a special issue of Sententia. He lives with his wife and cats in Portland, Oregon; online, you can find him at snoekbrown.com.