Every ten days, Ben walked to HK Pet Supply on Clement Street. The small shop, located between a mediocre Dim Sum restaurant and Tom Lee’s Cosmetic Dentistry, maintained an inventory of a store six times its size. Ben forced himself to buy only the smallest bags of food in defiance of Alicia’s absence. When she finally returned, he’d hand over the dog and, so help him God, not one pre-paid kernel of kibble to go with it.
She emailed him once from an internet café in Van Vieng to say that she was doing well and, even though it was hard not to communicate, she was sure it was best for both of them. I’m still not sure when I’ll be back, but I promise I’m being safe and I’m sure I don’t have any regrets. She hadn’t mentioned the dog.
Ben stared at stacks of dog food piled on aluminum racks. He knew from experience that he would eventually recognize the brand. Asking for help did no good, since he couldn’t say what he was looking for and the family that owned HK Pet Supply spoke no English.
A kind of nausea began to well in his stomach; a mixture of anger and anxiety. Why are there so many fucking brands of dog food, he thought. He had a sudden overpowering urge to smoke a cigarette; something he hadn’t done in ten years. The tarry smell, the dry throat, the lightheadedness all seemed like a pleasant dream. He briefly considered asking the shop owner, a central casting elderly Chinese man, if he had a cigarette. In Ben’s mind, the Chinese were one of the last ethnic groups on earth that still ignored smoking’s health risks, en masse.
He turned his attention back to the food and began scanning up and down the piles of bags, shuffling slowly down the aisle. His stomach calmed, but his anger grew. What is wrong with us? Why do we need so much of everything? What possible explanation could there be for 38 different kinds of cell phones? Fourteen different brands of bottled fucking water? Why can’t we find one thing that does what we ask it to do and just be happy with it? The sheer volume of variety, the volume of volume, weighed on him like every bad decision he’d ever made all balled into one massive mistake.
“Can I help you find something?”
She’d sneaked up next to him in his delirium. A white girl, about his age, with a cute, punkish face that reminded him pleasantly of a well-made hand puppet. Her hair was short, mostly translucent, with hints of purple; the product of a lifetime of dyeing. There was a sapphire stud in her left nostril and at least six small silver hoop earrings in each of her ears, evenly spaced from the lobes to the top. Ben thought they looked like climbing rings at a playground structure.
“I’m sorry. Did I startle you?” she asked.
“Um, no. Sorry. Yes. Kind of. Do you work here?” he asked incredulously.
“It’s my third day.”
Ben looked past her down the aisle. The owner sat behind the register, listening to a Chinese radio broadcast. He’d never seen anyone but the man’s family working in the store.
“I know. I seem a little out of place.”
“No, no. It’s not that.” But it was. “I just don’t know what I’m looking for.”
“Dog food?” her tone was politely teasing and Ben, his sexual senses dulled by months of loneliness, thought she might be flirting with him. He tried to look through his own skull at his hair, which he felt certain was greasy and disheveled.
“Yes.” He smiled. “Dog food. But I can never remember what kind I’m supposed to get. It does not have Dick Van Patten’s picture on it. That much I’m sure of.”
She smiled, though perhaps more out of kindness than amusement.
“Well, what kind of dog is it?”
“I don’t know. I mean, he’s a mutt.”
“What size is he? Big? Little?”
“Medium, I guess.”
“Pardon me for saying this, but it doesn’t seem like you know a lot about your dog.”
This did seem to Ben to be a somewhat impertinent thing to say to a stranger, especially one on whom she was technically waiting. At the same time, she was exactly right and he was attracted to her honesty and insightfulness. He was about to explain that it was actually his ex-girlfriend’s dog when he thought better of it.
“Pardon me for saying this, but you don’t exactly seem like someone who should be working here.” He flashed a smirky grin that only served to make his round face look more shapeless.
She looked briefly insulted, but continued without evident irritation. “I just really like animals. I’m not allowed to have them in my apartment.”
“So you substitute by working with their food?”
She did laugh at this. “Ha. No. A lot of people bring their dogs in here. It’s not like volunteering at an animal shelter, but the pay’s a lot better.”
“It can’t be that much better.”
“Some is better than none, wouldn’t you say?”
She looked at him when she said this and he filled her expression with meaning. He knew he was doing it, but he couldn’t help himself. It had been so long since someone had looked directly into his eyes and the power of it overwhelmed him.
“I could go home and bring my dog down here if you’d like to meet him,” he offered.
She broke off her gaze and looked to the floor.
“I get off in about 15 minutes, actually.”
“Even better, we could—“
“So I probably wouldn’t be here by the time you got back.”
A spasm shot up from the back of his knee into his gut. The desire for a cigarette returned, stronger than before.