They keep the dogs hungry for a reason—when she was six, a year before her parents died, Tanya saw a skinny dog at the end of a chain take a man’s calf apart: whipcord tendons, fast blood, curdled fat, and screaming that might have been the thief or the black and tan mutt. She didn’t blame the dog.
She knows that dogs are personal property and that a fenced backyard is personal property and that ignoring the “Keep Out” and “No Trespassing” signs are things she could get in trouble with the cops over, though it’s more likely she’ll just get the shit kicked out of her—not for the first time. Ever since Sam decided they were best friends in the fourth grade, she can’t say no to hunger or pain, so sometimes she sneaks out at two a.m. and throws lunchmeat ham over the fence. After the first time, the dogs know her smell and don’t bark.
Tanya hears about The Old Man’s funeral on Friday, right in the middle of trying to get a pole shaped dent out of an early 2000’s SUV; she almost drops the stud puller on her foot. She’s wanted him dead for so long: since she was ten years old and first saw him backhand Sam to the floor. At first, she doesn’t think she’ll go. Knowing he died peacefully in his sleep gets under her skin. Still. She thinks it might be good to see it. To know for certain he’s gone.
After work on Saturday, she walks over to Roy’s on Locust and Third, where she’s been a good customer since she was eighteen and got her first fake ID. Roy knew her parents before they died and she works on his car for free, so he never said anything about all the women she used to fuck in the bathroom. She has a rule about bringing people home, and it’s been years since she had sex in a bed.
Tonight, she’s watching the weekend bartender, Stacy, as she wraps up after closing. It’s been busy, even for a weekend, and Stacy’s been distracted. Now Tanya’s horny and nervous-talking; at that awkward spot in her mid-thirties where she can’t decide if it would be fun to get Stacy on a barstool and eat her out or if it would just be hard on her knees. They had a “one night” thing that’s kept going for a few years now, and they don’t talk about it. Stacy had her first baby and her wedding just after her sixteenth birthday and hates everyone except Tanya. They have a lot of good rage orgasms and Stacy makes a hell of a Whiskey Sour and it stopped being casual a while ago.
Tanya tells her about the dogs and how she nearly got caught the other night.
“How the hell did you get like this, T?” Stacy asks, locking the front door and flicking Tanya’s bare arm with a wet bar rag on her way back. She says it like a joke, but really, it’s a question. Because if Tanya asked, Stacy would probably leave her husband, and sometimes she wonders why Tanya hasn’t. She knows it’s not fear; Tanya’s never learned the fine art of not sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong. No one likes her for it, except maybe Stacy, not even the people who drag her nose into situations in the first place: the battered friends who show up on her doorstep late at night, the cousins who need a place to stay after they get kicked out. In the end, Tanya’s always the “troublemaker” and Stacy loves that about her. Tanya’s been cut off by friends, threated by their boyfriends, and the little family she has left never invites her for holidays.
“Born this way?” Tanya offers, laughing badly. It’s a lie. She knows exactly where the addiction started. This savior complex thing. Sometimes, after two a.m. and three or four tequila and orange juices, she considers Facebook stalking Sam. Sam is… (was?) The Old Man’s daughter. She never knows which word to use in her head—how may bloody mouths and blue-black arms does it take to un-daughter someone? Tanya never looks her up though; it’s better to remember Sam with her freckled arm hanging out the window of the red Honda Civic, everything she owned squished into trash bags in the backseat and her old, spotty dog Clarence riding shotgun. To remember the moment when Tanya knew Sam was finally going to escape, when she still thought for sure that Sam would ask her to come along. That’s what she sees when she lets the black-and-blue girl of the moment crash on her couch or loans her rent money to her cousin Rob. It’s the last time she remembers feeling okay—she’s so, so hungry to feel ok again.
“Hey.” Stacy lays her palms on the back of Tanya’s neck, slides them down the slope of her shoulders—hands that are strong enough to run two shakers at once work into ropey muscles, Stacy’s body close and warm, smelling of spilled cranberry juice and lemon disinfectant.
“I should go, Stace. I’m going to be shit company tonight.” All she can think about is the funeral, whether or not she’ll go. Whether Sam will be there.
“Don’t baby. I need you.” Stacy wants to say tell me about it, wants to hold her, kiss her on the corners of her mouth, but the only way she knows for sure to keep Tanya is to fill her hands with her own need. So, Stacy shimmies out of her jean shorts and hooks her feet into the rust-spotted rungs of the bar stool. She’s gotten good at figuring out what Tanya needs, and if she holds Tanya’s head afterward and strokes her hair, it’s just her coming down off the orgasm and no one has to be embarrassed about it.
“Do you think you’ll go?” Stacy asks as Tanya rinses her mouth with rail tequila and runs fingers through her short hair. Stacy knows about Sam even though Tanya doesn’t say much. The Old Man could talk the hind leg off a donkey when he was drunk, so everyone’s heard him blame Tanya loud and long for Sam “running off,” heard him repeat like a prayer that his baby girl is probably dead in a ditch somewhere because of Tanya’s interfering. Stacy wonders if Sam will come back from wherever she’s been the last twenty-something years to see The Old Man put in the ground, what that might mean for Tanya, for her. She rinses Tanya’s shot glass in the rigged-up bar sink and breathes through the shaking that might be the aftershock of orgasm, or fear.
Tanya watches Stacy roll her shoulders and pull her long black hair into a ponytail—she’s beautiful behind the bar, can talk shit with the regulars and make half a dozen drinks without breaking ice-hot eye contact. Stacy’s husband knows about them, everyone does, but he doesn’t care because it’s “not real sex”—he got drunk and told her that once, the words wet and sour, his arm across her chest, pressing her against the wall by the bathroom. She hadn’t pushed back, hadn’t wanted her anger to wind up on Stacy’s skin later. He doesn’t see Tanya as a threat, and, she thinks, maybe she isn’t. Who’d leave a guy with a good job for her?
The Old Man had always said she was “bad news” because her parents were dead, and she wasn’t any good at school—because she “walked around like a boy”. But now that she’s older she thinks maybe it was because she was never afraid to call him what he was, straight to Sam’s face or anyone else’s. He said she’d wind up in prison or pregnant if anybody would fuck her, but now she details cars and the money isn’t bad and she’s never had a baby or a parking ticket. But The Old Man might be right, and Sam might be dead somewhere, and it might be her fault.
“What do I wear?” Tanya asks, grabbing Stacy on her way to take the register bag to the back. She presses her face into Stacy’s neck for a second and then nips her, but for a second Stacy thought she was going to lay her head down and cry.
“Want I should come help you pick something?” It’s the closest Stacy’s ever come to inviting herself over and Tanya looks startled, but then smiles, not the half her mouth trademark smirk, but something a whole lot younger that Stacy hasn’t seen before. They’ve never existed outside the bar, and Stacy figured that’s how Tanya wanted it, told herself that was how she wanted it too.
“Nah. I’ll figure it out. You’ve got better things to do with your time than go through my closet.”
“You scared I’ll trip over a skeleton trying to find you a pair of pants?” Stacy slides her hands into Tanya’s back pockets, presses herself tight against her.
“Maybe. But I’d better head or I’ll be here all night.” She’s flirting, which is kind of her defense mechanism with women; Stacy’s watched her long enough to know that, but she kisses Stacy on the cheek before she goes, and Stacy wonders if she realizes that’s a first.
The next morning, Tanya does up the top button on her shirt and tucks it into a pair of blue pants she found lurking under some tacky Christmas pajamas. She won’t wear black, but she’s not going to look like trash either. The last time she saw Sam, they were emptying out her bedroom while The Old Man was at work, and Tanya’d been wearing a wife beater and ripped black jeans. After they’d shoved in the last garbage bag of stuff, Sam had run a hand through her hair and sworn she’d never set foot in town again, but you say a lot of things when you’re sixteen. Tanya had promised to stay in school, but she’d never gone back after that day.
At the funeral, Tanya stays back on the edge of the crowd, watches the casket go down, tries not to spit. There’s a woman there who doesn’t fit in. She looks city, like she’s got enough money not to think twice about buying a fancy coffee. She’s perched uncomfortably on the bumpy grass, shifting from heel to heel, one hand on the shoulder of a little girl who also seems out of place, who talks when she shouldn’t and doesn’t look afraid. It might not be Sam, the nineteen years between sixteen and thirty-five are changing ones, but it might be too.
Tanya knows she doesn’t look anything like she did at sixteen—she’s not worried about being recognized. At sixteen, she had ass-length hair that Sam used to love to braid, and the rest of her was still soft and rounded at the edges. Now she can hook her fingers into her hipbones, and she’s made sure her hair isn’t long enough to grab since a bad run in with The Old Man.
Tanya stays for the whole service and doesn’t say “Amen” at the end of the prayer. She doesn’t talk to maybe-Sam or the little girl, but she watches them walk out together hand in hand and get into an upgraded green Miata; green was always Sam’s favorite color. It’s sparkling clean under the fine sheen of dust from the gravel cemetery lot, and there’s a cartoon window sticker with a man and woman and a girl and a dog and a cat. She sees the girl lean forward to pull a stuffed rabbit off the dashboard and watches Sam laugh and kiss her on the forehead.
She thinks about the kind of life Sam must have; how much the goodness of it would piss The Old Man off. She tries to picture the husband, the real person behind the window cartoon and is surprised when she doesn’t feel jealous. For a long time, she’s wondered why the hell Sam took the dog and left her, but she finds, turning out the pockets of her heart, that she’s not mad about it anymore. She unlocks her pickup and hops up; it’s a vintage Ford and doesn’t have AC or power locks or anything, but she restored the whole thing herself and damned if the windows don’t crank down like butter.
She’d meant to go home, left herself a six pack in the fridge to drown whatever she figured would need drowning after the funeral. Instead, she drives by the bungalow and leans on her horn until Stacy comes outside, hands in her back pockets, a smile on her face like she gets once she locks the door at closing. Stacy slips into the passenger seat without a word and turns up the radio loud, like they do this every day. They roll through the drive through and Tanya buys a dozen Big Macs and a chocolate shake for Stacy. At the neighbor’s house, they throw burgers over the fence in broad daylight and Stacy gives Tanya sips of the milkshake. The dogs almost seem like they’re smiling.
Kate Tooley is a queer writer originally from the Atlanta area, currently living in Brooklyn. She writes about the sticky corners of gender and sexuality; complicated families; and magical animals. They hold an MFA from The New School and are an Assistant Editor at Uncharted Magazine. Their writing appears in journals including Passages North, Barren Magazine, and Witness, has been recognized by River Styx and Retreat West contests, and nominated for Best Microfiction and Best American Essays.