Gloria and Marcus moved to the country from their rented town apartment in the spring. They wanted a house of their own. They wanted to live in the country, or in a big bristling city, but country was closer. Gloria planted marigolds in a stretch of dirt out front before they’d even unpacked the kitchen, or the television set, and the next morning she spotted the small orange flowers torn and muddy on the grass. “Oh,” she breathed, looking out the kitchen window over the sink. “I guess this must be the country.”
“Animals?” asked Marcus, coming up behind her with a cup of coffee in his hands.
She leaned over the sink and vomited among the cereal bowls left from last night’s improvised dinner. “Coffee, you jerk. That smell.” She was pregnant.
Their old home in town was twenty four miles away. That's where they had started their married life, in an apartment above a sensible clothing store that emitted a wet dog smell whenever it rained—all those woolen pants. That's where, nine months after their wedding day (just family and a few friends gathered in Gloria's mother's living room) Gloria got pregnant, and that's where, seven months after that, she lost the baby in a gushing catastrophe. Six months later she was just barely pregnant again. A month later they moved. Now: two months pregnant, two years plus two months married, a week as scared home owners. Tired, resolute, determined. Gloria was determined. Marcus had been silently, respectfully, both devastated and relieved when the previous baby winked out of their lives, and hadn’t understood the intention of trying again so soon, especially since the first time had been an accident anyway. But tell Gloria that and she’d knock him out of the house, out of her life, probably.
* * *
A few days later, roses. To replace the marigolds. Three red rose bushes. This time Gloria was watching from the same kitchen window as two drooling dogs stormed through her garden with bared teeth and pancake paws.
“They came from the house next door,” she told Marcus. He lay on his back with his head under the sink. “They must belong to someone, I saw collars.”
“I didn’t think anyone lived there,” Marcus answered. He emerged from the cupboard with mice beads and cobwebs decorating his hair, wrench held like a torch. “I’ll go over and talk to them. There’s got to be leash laws.”
“This is a dirt road. The woods. What if people don’t follow leash laws?” Gloria felt like crying, but she’d felt like crying for the past two months, it was how her body worked now. She only wanted a few gardens with some damn flowers, and a baby, and a husband who worked and came home at night and slept beside her in the bed. She only wanted what all her sisters had and most of her friends had. She only wanted to live over the medium heat of normal.
* * *
Four times over five months Marcus walked across the road; twice in a rainstorm, once in snow, once in a cool near-winter morning the color of weak oranges, his breath his company, a morning that reminded him of mornings he and his brother had left the house early to hunt, no guns, just looking deep through trees and tracking. The man who owned the dogs, his name was Walker, he’d listen while Marcus told of ravaged flowerbeds or tipped garbage cans or the sound of killing late at night, in their backyard, animal hollers in the dark. Walker would listen, then offer a beer and talk about his truck, constantly troubled with clogged cogs and faulty wires.
“Any advice?” he’d ask Marcus.
“New truck,” Marcus would say, though he could have spouted a few tips for keeping leads clean and metal parts greased. He worked as a mechanic in a garage, was considered an expert at slow-coming diagnostic conclusions.
Gloria smelled the beer on his breath when he returned home and figured the dogs would stay tied for a few days and then they’d run again, fierce on their own path. She was right.
“Dammit, Marcus, those dogs ruin everything,” she whined. She could hear her own flimsiness, the squeal and squeak of a dependent, a mouse or a mole lower down on the food chain needing protection. Marcus thought of her as the strong one, the one to be careful with in terms of emotion and consequence, but she knew the true balance of power. She only knew how to make little noises, barely effective. No real action behind the voice.
Fall dimmed and winter rose and the cold caused upset and excitement in the dogs’ blank brains. She thought of going over there herself. Maybe a pregnant woman would have better luck convincing a rooted man to change a habit. But the metal bones rising from the dirt driveway, up through the coat of early snow, the tires hung from stakes on the side of the squat house, the smell of rubber and yeasty liquids, the filmed over windows and fogged glass of the sliding glass door, these made bile churn in her chest and she suspected she’d lose whatever her last meal was just by knocking on Walker’s door. Nausea had stalked her all during pregnancy and wouldn’t let go, even though all the books said it was bound to get better.
No use keeping a garden last summer. Even after Marcus erected a fence of chicken wire those dogs still got through, barely challenged by the mesh. As if they were famished for tomatoes and lettuce and beets and sunflowers and zucchini. As if they needed the nutrients.
No luck walking her expanded body up their own lawn for the barest of exercise. Too many camouflaged piles of shit.
Walker wasn’t any age. Gray and brown hair, dirty, a lined face tanned many summers in a certain pattern regulated by a constant ball cap, no job, broken truck, no visitors beyond his crazy blond nephew who came some nights to drink and build a tire fire in the dirt driveway. Might have been the type to die alone and remain alone with the stench, but Gloria figured he’d fail to be so accommodating.
"Dammit Marcus, I hate those dogs. I hate that man.” Marcus nodded at Gloria’s changed and vibrating frame, as if he understood and only waited for a better time to take the situation in hand.
* * *
More snow. Another month. More snow.
Sometimes the crazy blond nephew took the dogs for a walk down the road, down past an empty rusting trailer, past someone’s firing pit. He carried a leash, but never attached any dog to the other end. “In case of police,” Gloria muttered. From the kitchen window she watched him return, dogs circling, lunging ahead and quickening back, catching each other in their constant game of chase-and-kill. The crazy blond nephew looked like he could have held a real job, insurance or selling cars, maybe gotten married and had a chance toward decency, but the muffinish lady behind the counter at the post office whispered he was sick, mentally, hospital sick. Marcus’ brother had been sick like that and shot himself when they were both teenagers so Marcus had some sympathy for the guy. But his sympathy would have made Gloria mad, so he never mentioned it.
* * *
Gloria didn’t want to travel for Christmas. Their closest family was Gloria's mother an hour away and even one hour in a car would have been too hard on Gloria's joints and limbs. “Next year we’ll do Christmas. With the baby,” she said on Christmas Eve, lying with her slippered feet on the arm of the couch. “Marcus, get me some milk, would you?”
He warmed some milk in a pan and wished he’d at least gotten a tree. He liked Christmas. It was an easy day for him. He noticed lights on across the street. Walker celebrating the holiday with his nephew, probably, drinking as much as they could and trying to get the dogs drunk, trying to get them to fight for real so they could make bets. But those dogs were matched. They were the same dog tricked into two crunchy bodies.
“No, hon, I meant cold milk. For the heartburn, you know?”
They gave each other gifts, small ones to save money. For her: a goldish locket, the usual heart shape. She’d hinted at, wanted, a new nightgown to wear at the hospital after the delivery. She gave him some kind of tool for cutting wires, a mechanic thing he seemed to like.
* * *
Gloria didn’t tell Marcus that week when the baby didn’t move for a day. Didn’t want to see anything but worry on his face, afraid she’d notice in his stance a slight lean toward freedom. And anyway, the baby came back when she lay down that night, early, tired from her part time, foggy filing job at the dermatologist’s office. From the break room at work she could see, if she leaned close to the window glass and squinted sideways down the street, the front of the building where she used to live. She could see the clothing store sign and the green door on the side where she used to insert a key and then climb the stairs toward her new husband and the possibility of regular contentment. She didn't look often out the window, just ate her Saltines, drank her Red Rose tea, and returned to the filing room.
* * *
New Year’s Eve they drank orange juice, Marcus’ drink slightly touched with vodka from the freezer. The baby had been due two days previous. Gloria wondered if it was waiting for a fresh year.
“Let’s take a walk,” Marcus said, somewhat before midnight, standing at the open back door and letting the smell of wood smoke enter the house. “Let’s look at the moon.”
“I don’t want to step in any dog shit,” Gloria said.
“We’ll stick to the road.”
She followed him outside, afraid he’d leave her to meet midnight on her own and that was exactly why she'd gotten married in the first place, to avoid being alone during those highly potent calendar moments. Frozen air stole into their mouths and noses and lungs, but they were warm in their coats. They shuffled carefully down their driveway to the road and he kept a hand on her back to steady her eccentric body and his hand on her back like that, solid, made up for the cheap Christmas present she didn’t even like that much and which had hung on their bedroom mirror for a week, not around her neck. She found his coat pocket and slid her hand inside. Marcus made nests in his pockets: worn tissues, receipts, license numbers inked on soft scrap paper, paper clips, a small hand wrench Gloria couldn’t imagine having any use, pencil stubs, dead leaves from the fall. She nestled deeper in his pocket and he pressed more firmly on her back.
“Didn’t I say it would be beautiful?” he asked.
She was thinking no, you never said that, when the underbrush shook and shed its snow and the dogs came out of hiding and circled, breathing sharply and swallowing their tongues and smelling of blood and shit and circling and one of them muttered a growl and the other took it up and they tossed their throat sounds back and forth around Gloria and Marcus, who’d stopped walking and held each other through thick winter coats.
“Walk slow,” Marcus whispered.
Back up the short stretch of road, up their driveway, onto the porch. Dogs followed. Breathing deep and ludicrous the whole time. Their dank, rank smell sharper than the ice in the air. Gloria worried they’d insist on being let in the house. She didn’t know how to say no to these dogs. But from the porch they all heard a coyote scream off in the woods and that was enough, the dogs shot back into the dark and left only their noise behind, and their grisly smell.
“I’m calling the police,” she said, once inside. “I’m fucking calling the police.”
Marcus stood in the kitchen and washed their orange juice cups and poured himself another finger of vodka, straight. Gloria got through easily and explained the attack, mentioned she was nine months pregnant, told of frequent visits to ask in a civilized way for Walker to keep his dogs tied. “We’re not unreasonable people,” Marcus heard her say in her filing clerk’s voice, shot through with an anxious whine. “But these dogs could have killed us, they could have knocked us down in the road. Can you go over there and talk to him? Can you do anything?”
“They said they’d give him a warning,” she reported to Marcus after hanging up the phone. “If we see them loose again we’re supposed to call.” She poured herself a glass of milk. “I’m going to bed.”
Vodka might taste good warm, Marcus mused. His brother would have married someone with just the right voice. He’d have gone to college and studied like crazy and worked hard to get a job that paid the right amount of money and then he’d have found a woman with just the right voice. They’d have some kids after being married for a long time so they’d have known how to act around each other without making any mistakes. Christmas would have been loud and fun, both brothers and their families gathered around a long table cluttered with comforting food like Shepherd's Pie and burritos with guacamole, and in the afternoon, after presents and a big breakfast, he and his brother would have walked out into the woods and looked for deer tracks, moose tracks, rabbit tracks, no guns, just a walk in the trees.
Shades yawned open in the bedroom, the moon making everything milky. By her breath and rhythmic sweep of her foot Marcus knew Gloria lay awake. He lay beside her on top of the covers with his jeans and flannel shirt still buttoned. He may have dozed. She may have slept, but when silent red and blue lights scanned the room from the road outside they both woke and rose and watched, barefoot, from the window. An officer, female shaped, walked from her car to Walker’s house, to the side of the house, to the sliding glass door where they couldn’t see the exchange. Gloria pictured Walker heaving himself up from a chair, the blond nephew snoring on the floor, the dogs prone in two muddy dog puddles. The officer crossed the driveway, back to her car. Gloria thought the warning would have taken longer. She wondered if Walker would be told who had called to report his dogs, or if he could guess. The police car left the driveway, red and blue lights quiet and still. Gloria waved in a fit of ridiculous.
“Well,” Marcus sighed.
Gloria wanted her slippers. Her feet felt frozen to the soft pine bedroom floor. She wanted to sleep.
Stupid, bent over, drunk Walker came out of his house and crossed from the side of his house to the woods beside the driveway, the dogs swarming his steps like roly poly puppies happy for the human attention. Rifle loose and easy in his far hand. Like they were all heading out for the hunt.
The first shot could have been a tree cracking in the cold. The second made it obvious. Two deliberate cracks. Two bullets.
On his way back to the house he stopped and nodded to them as if he could see their backlit silhouettes in their bedroom window and wanted to make sure to acknowledge their purpose and presence. A quick, mocking salute with his right hand.
“He just shot those dogs,” Gloria said. “What if he…”
Marcus couldn’t answer. He couldn’t finish her thought for her. A too-thick wall of crying blocked his face and voice, and his shoulders hunched towards his chest and too much mucus streamed from his nose and open, gasping mouth. The new year can make you do strange things, he thought, but could not say out loud. I miss my brother, he wanted to say. Gloria couldn’t think of what to do, but she lay a hand on his quaking back while wanting to yell and beat at him for crying like this when the man next door had just shot his own dogs. Craziness, mental craziness runs in the family, he wanted to tell her. My family. Her hand stayed warm against his flannel shirt though the heartburn had returned ferociously and she needed a sip of milk and wanted to leave him alone. What if this child...
He couldn’t tell her anything. Walker had disappeared back into his dog-empty house. He couldn’t quit the sobs. They could only stand in place like that at the window until they noticed the sky lightening and widening and then they went back to bed and listened together to the baby move under Gloria’s skin.