Steal Small


I live in a good house now, with an attic where the roof makes a triangle and the heat collects. You can stand up there and see out back to the barbed wire where our property meets the neighbor’s, and past that the highway. The neighbor still farms, soy planted right up against the fence. We haven’t planted anything, unless you count the animals. That’s what Leo does, what he grows. From the attic you can see the kennels, laid out in a half circle in the backyard, all figured so the mean ones don’t fight, the sweet ones calm the fussy ones down, and the bitches can’t get puppies. Leo can hold them all in his head, who needs what and eats what and is looking sick and should probably be sold on before it looks any sicker. He’s got a good mind for organization. I’ve got a good mind for keeping stuff tidy, which is important in a house like this, which is big and decent and full of what a person needs but has fifteen dogs caged up in the back. Fifteen give or take. In a good month, take.

Leo got a real nasty scratch about a month ago, spiraling from the back of his hand down the inside of his arm. I had him sit on the bathroom counter while I got alcohol and cotton balls out of the cupboard. I dabbed my way down his arm. “Second time this week,” I said. “You should watch yourself better.”

“It wasn’t the Rottie,” he said, looking up, and I couldn’t tell whether or not he liked what I’d done to the ceiling. It’s light blue now, with clouds. I did the clouds with a can of white paint and more cotton balls, more dabbing.

“If it wasn’t the Rottie—”

“One of the cage doors. I need to go back out with the wire cutters.”

“You need one of those shots?”

“Tetanus? I’m fine,” he said, but there’s no way of knowing with Leo if he meant fine because he’d had one or fine because fine’s what you are when you don’t think too much about yourself, about how you’re really doing and what you really need. We’re both of us fine most of the time.

I was long done with the alcohol but I was standing between Leo’s legs and he’d put his feet together behind me, up against the backs of my thighs. I still had his left hand in mine. I brushed the backs of his knuckles. “The gangrene’s back,” he said, which it was, but he doesn’t need to warn me like he thinks he does. He doesn’t really have gangrene, just some weird skin thing that makes him itch so bad he scratches even in his sleep, until the skin breaks open and starts oozing, sometimes blood and sometimes something clear and sometimes both together, so his skin shines in the light like a pink glaze, like glass or pastry. He always warns me, before I uncover an elbow, or the back of a knee, or lift his shirt to find a patch on his belly. I kissed the back of his hand, a clear part, close to his wrist. His legs dropped down and he let me go, his heels kicking the cupboard doors.

“I’ll go start dinner,” I said.

“I’ll be back in soon,” he said, and hopped down off the counter. He’s much taller than me, long like a noodle and skinny in his jeans. His hair’s long but not too long, tied back and never greasy. He’s got a Cheshire cat inked on his left front forearm. The tattoo seems to keep away the gangrene, and he jokes that he’s going to save up, become the Illustrated Man, stop selling dogs at the Pick n’ Trades and just sell tickets for people to see him in his shorts.

For dinner I broiled some frozen fish, microwaved some frozen peas, baked a couple of potatoes. The window over the sink faces the back, and Leo had the dunk tank out. I guess you’re supposed to spray flea stuff around the kennels, air them out with no dogs inside, but we’re almost full up until the Pick n’ Trade in Joplin, and there’s nowhere to move the dogs to. So he took them one by one out of the kennels and dumped them in the tank, pyrethrum insecticide mixed with water, strong enough to keep the fleas off them until market. It’s bad for their eyes and skin, worse for their tempers, but Class B dealers don’t mind with temperament. Leo had gloves on, a pair he stole from the outfitter’s offices at the slaughterhouse, but the Rottweiler might have gotten him anyway. We’ve had her here for a month, since Leo found her in the Lamar classifieds and went to pick her up. I think she’s homesick.

The fish didn’t taste like much but Leo’s always gracious. “Where’d you learn this one?” he asks. “How’d you make that?” I sewed two buttons back onto a shirt of his the other day, which doesn’t take more than a needle and a pair of eyes, but he acted like he’d seen a miracle. Did my mother sew, he asked, had she taught me, and I wanted to laugh but then he’d ask what was funny. It wasn’t something my mom would care about, the way other people looked in their clothes. When Mouse got boobs I was the one who had to tell her that she needed a bra. The elastic had gone out of my old ones, but I could drive by then so we went to Wal-Mart and charged some things. It was a nice afternoon, doing that together.

Mouse lives in St. Louis now. She’s going to college, studying biology. She sends me postcards, always of the Arch, the Mississippi River, things I already know how they look like. I’d like to see her campus, the streets where she lives, but she’s never volunteered. She says she has a boyfriend who’s studying business, and I thought about writing back how Leo has a business, too, but then she’d ask selling what. Lyssa, she writes. Mango of my eye and possum of my heart. How goes it? I took summer term classes so I’ve got more finals already. I don’t think I’ll be able to make it for a visit. How’s what’s-his-face? It’s cold and rainy in St. Louis. Hope the weather’s better in Neosho. Love and Squalor, Mouse. She always signs the postcards Love and Squalor, and I know it’s a joke but I don’t get what’s funny.

Leo only bunches part-time. He works days over at National Beef. He’s one of the top guys there who’s not management, a twelve-dollar-an-hour man. He started off down the chain, but now he’s a knocker. He stands up on the catwalk with a bolt gun and lets the cows have it as they come down the chute. “Pow, right between the eyes,” he told me. He talks big but I don’t think he enjoys it all that much. He stands eight hours in his rubber coverall, goggles, his hair tied back and stuffed under a net. The slaughterhouse has been losing money so steady they’ve got the line sped up to a cow every nine seconds, trying to do in volume what they can’t do in beef prices. Down the chute and up by the ankles; Leo’s quick hand on the bolt gun is the only thing saving the cows from being butchered alive. “Goddamn angel of mercy,” Leo says. “What kind of a life does a cow have, anyway?” He says top line speed is 400 an hour, which means Leo can kill 3,200 animals in a day, minus his breaks, two fifteen-minute ones, and a half hour for lunch.

I work twenty hours a week at the Goodwill, mostly sorting donations. I’d work more if they had the hours for me. It’s nasty work in lots of little ways, but since Leo’s work is what it is, I can’t complain to him. We have to keep the stuffed toys wrapped in plastic for two weeks in the back, to suffocate any lice that might be on them. We have to check the clothes for stains, like old blood the color of sweet potatoes on the insides of women’s pants. If the clothes are stained too bad to sell, they’re shipped out in big bundles to somewhere else, somewhere in Africa or South America or something.

Leo ate his potato last, scooping out the halves and then rolling the skins up into tubes with salt and pepper inside. He ate the tubes with his hands, like brown paper hot dogs. I got out ice cream bowls, a half gallon of vanilla and the kind of chocolate sauce that hardens on top of the ice cream. “I’m glad it wasn’t the Rottie,” I said. “Who scratched you. She’s a pretty one.”

“Pretty ugly. She’s a dog.”

“All your pretty uglies.”

“You too, Miss Lyss. You can be my favorite. My prettiest ugly.”

I tapped my spoon against the hard chocolate. Underneath the shell my ice cream was already melting.

“I’m just kidding,” Leo said.

“Stop messing with the gangrene. You’ll make it worse.” He was rubbing his knuckles up and down on the edge of the table. When he’s itching bad he’ll rub his fingers against stuff without even realizing and the skin breaks open right away. There are little smears of blood all over the house, on the prickly surfaces that feel best when he’s itching—the rough carpet in the rec room, the weave of the couch, the furry cover on the toilet. I could track him through the house like that, like a hurt animal, something leaking and in pain.

“Maybe it is worse this time. Maybe I have leprosy. My nose’ll fall off. Then I’ll be your pretty ugly.”

“If your nose falls off you’re not going to be my anything,” I said, which sounded kind of mean, and I thought about telling him the truth, which is that he’d be my lovely ugly even if his nose did fall off, and then that seemed pathetic and I thought perhaps I shouldn’t say anything at all so I didn’t.

“If you’re not working tomorrow, can you come with me?” he asked.


“Webb City.”

“You got a paper?”

“We can pick one up there. Look through it over some breakfast. We’ll go to the Denny’s off 71.”

“Sure,” I said, and hoped he didn’t think the Denny’s was what swayed me. I don’t do what I do for Leo so he’ll buy me breakfast.

In bed that night I was careful of the gangrene. Leo fell asleep right after but it took me awhile. It had been dark for hours but the weather wasn’t cooling. We had the ceiling fan going and the windows open. The crickets were chirping the way they did all summer, a long low buzz like power lines, and the dogs were suffering in the heat. I bet Leo’d never find anyone else who can listen to dogs cry the way I can. They call out and I can turn over and not hear them, not even a bit. I don’t need the radio, or the tv. I just need my own two ears and then I don’t hear a thing. I dreamed good dreams but I don’t remember what they were.

At Denny’s, Leo got the Grand Slam and I got waffles. He took the classifieds from the Webb City Gazette and let me have everything else. I read about a meth lab bust and a church swap sale on the front page while Leo circled ads with a red pen. I grew up in Webb City, but with Mouse in St. Louis, there’s not much to bring me back. I don’t know where my mom’s got to these days.

“Anything promising?”

“Loads. Some purebreds, too. Or so they’re claiming. I thought we’d try and hit those first.”

“Sounds fine.” I went to check my hair and makeup in the bathroom while Leo settled up. I was wearing a flowered dress and sandals, my hair down, a little liner for my eyes and color for my lips, not too much. Like a Sunday School teacher, Leo said, and it was strange to hear something like that come out of him as a compliment. Leo was wearing khaki pants and a long-sleeved shirt that covered his tattoo but was too hot for the weather. He already had sweat stains under his arms. We sat in the van with the air conditioning on while Leo started calling houses on his cell phone. Beagles are good finds. Hounds, Labs, retrievers, too, either purebred or close enough so you can tell the breed without squinting. It’s because they’re mid-sized dogs with large chest cavities, the way Leo explains it. I don’t quite know why that’s important but I guess it makes them easy to work with.

Before I moved in with Leo the biggest thing I’d ever stolen was a stick of butter. Not even a package, a single stick. Mouse and I had decided we wanted to make chocolate chip cookies. We found a recipe on an index card in the kitchen but none of the ingredients. All we needed was a teaspoon of this, a half-teaspoon of that, and we didn’t have anything. One eighth of a teaspoon baking soda. We looked at the tiny bowl of the measuring spoon, the size of the nail on Mouse’s pinky finger. We found a chain of little plastic snap-off paint tubs that had come with a paint-by-number set, and cleaned them out and put them in Mouse’s pink vinyl purse. At the grocery store we took baking soda and baking powder off the shelf, looked both ways for clerks, opened the containers, and tapped out a few spoonfuls into the tubs. We were doing the same thing with a tin of cinnamon in the spice aisle when a woman confronted us, a lady with a cart full of food like kids would eat, fruit snacks and Hi-C. “What do you girls think you’re doing?” she asked.

“We want to make cookies,” Mouse said.

“Are you going to pay for that?”

“We can’t. So we’re only taking a little,” I said, and Mouse nodded solemnly, because Mouse was already an expert in solemn truths.

The woman looked at us in our old shorts and stained t-shirts and you could watch her feeling sorry for us, deciding to let us keep right on stealing. I let Mouse put two eggs and the stick of butter in her purse after she promised to be careful with them. At the check out we paid for flour and sugar and chocolate chips and asked for two plastic bags. I put them on the handlebars of my bike, one on each side, because I figured Mouse had enough to worry about with the eggs in her purse.

The next morning, Mouse and I were eating some of our cookies for breakfast when Mom came home. “Where’d you get cookies?” she asked, and we told her, because we figured she either wouldn’t care or would think we were resourceful. She put some bread in the toaster and opened the fridge. “Where’s the butter?” she asked.

“There isn’t any.”

“You don’t put four sticks of butter in a batch of cookies.”

“That’s why we only took one,” Mouse said.

“Lyssa and Mouse. You steal, you steal something worth taking. Then I’d at least have butter for the damn toast.”

That’s one of the only pieces of advice Mouse and I can remember getting from her, and I didn’t even take it. I still steal small. Not things other people want, or things that are worth a lot. I just take what I need.

The first house we went to in Webb City was in my old neighborhood, a street that had been kept up a little better than the one I grew up on. The house was a nice little ranch, painted white with geraniums in the window boxes. Leo rang the doorbell and then stepped back so we were standing side by side. The woman who came to the door had an armful of brown cardboard boxes, so Leo kept it short. “Mrs. Sidore?” he said. “I called a few minutes ago. About the dog. Leo Tillet.”

We were shown to the couch in the living room, which was full of boxes labeled Estate Sale, and Rubbish, and Keep, and Kids Might Want??? I could feel Leo smile. Death lingers on a dog. Families want rid of it. Leo’s a quick appraiser, and I knew he was looking over Mrs. Sidore and the dog she brought in, which even I could tell was a poodle, purebred or pretty close, a little gray around the muzzle but spry enough. “You’re quick off the mark. The first call we’ve had.”

“My wife and I wanted to get the jump on the Sunday ads. We’ve been looking for a dog and we were interested in poodles, so when we saw your ad—”

“She’s purebred, from a breeder near Kansas City. I’ve got the American Kennel Association papers. She’s been taken good care of. Shots, and spayed, although I think she’s past puppies by now.”

“What’s her name?” Leo asked, scratching around the dog’s ears until she started to wag so hard her whole butt waggled. Leo’s awfully good with dogs. Good with people, too; he asked all the right questions, about health conditions, about how much exercise old Muffy needed, whether she could be let off a leash. “We have a nice piece,” he said. “In the country outside of Neosho. She’d have room to run around.”

“It sounds lovely,” Mrs. Sidore said. “Honestly I was worried, with the dog being old, that she’d be hard to place. I don’t suppose families with kids would want her, knowing she’ll die and having to explain it.”

“It’s just my wife and me right now,” Leo said. “And we don’t have time to train a puppy.”

“Well, Mr. Tillet, the ad was Free to a Good Home and you seem a good home and she’s still free. I’ll grab her papers, if you’re decided, and a box of her things.”

Our house is full of dog bowls, and Muffy wouldn’t need toys, but Leo let Mrs. Sidore get them. I held the dog on my lap as we drove away. On the next block we stopped and Leo unlocked the back of the van. He has kennel space for six dogs back there. We locked Muffy into a cage with a dish of water and one of the toys from her box, and Leo checked the next house on his list against his map.

Leo’s lucky we’ve got a good neighbor, by which I mean we never see each other, and never give each other any trouble. His house is on the far end of his property, and even on a clear night the sound from our yard doesn’t travel. If we actually wanted to let Muffy roam free, he wouldn’t say boo about it. Mouse and I, our neighbor growing up was Mr. Martin, who had a house just like ours except that ours was yellow and his was green. One summer he decided to have a big yard sale and got all his buddies to bring over every piece of old furniture they could find, either on consignment or just to save them a trip to the dump. Offer the customers a wide selection, he kept saying, lining couches up along his driveway and across his front yard until his entire property was covered over like a furniture store, chairs in one corner, desks in another, big appliances, like an old fridge with a bright chrome handle, back by his garage. He seemed to do okay. People came and hauled some stuff away, or shook on something and promised to be back later for it. The next weekend, though, he still had half a Goodwill store spread out over his lawn. That weekend it rained, and in the morning all the furniture was soaking. Mouse and I balanced on the backs of the couches, knocking each other off onto the cushions and listening to the squelch. Pools of water rose up in perfect footprints where we stepped, and the beginning of a smell, damp and lush, was just beginning to curl up from the upholstery. Mr. Martin chased us off that morning and stood for a while on his lawn, reaching his right arm up over his head to scratch at the back of his neck. Mouse and I stared at the hair growing in his armpit and wondered what he’d do.

Of course, the easiest thing to do with a yard full of soaking furniture is nothing at all, and for years that’s what Mr. Martin seemed settled on doing. He gave up trying to run us off, and in winter we made snow forts out of the sofas, pelted each other with secret stores of snowballs hidden under chairs and in desk drawers. After the first winter’s snow melted, the smell had taken hold. The furniture was wet and moldering, the wood splitting with rot, the cushions mildewing. A pair of raccoons had started a den underneath a loveseat, and a skunk had a nest of babies under a recliner. Mouse and I would jump onto the loveseat, both together, on the count of three. When our feet pounded the springs the raccoons would shriek and shoot out. We played hide and seek, and once Mouse accidentally locked herself in the old fridge, but I found her and let her out.

One family Leo and I visited that Sunday had already placed their dog. A few more were playing coy, taking our information and giving us the third degree. The fat guy with the Akita had a long list of names on a yellow legal pad, but the lady with the bichon frise just wrote Leo’s name and number at the top of a blank page. “I’ve had a few people show some interest. I’ll let you know,” she said, and you could tell she hadn’t, but she was mighty suspicious of why a guy like Leo would want a dog like a bichon. We picked up a chocolate Labrador from a couple who was moving to a one-bedroom apartment in Kansas City in a week. An English terrier from an old woman whose family was putting her in a nursing home. She tried to serve us tea and tiny little shortbread cookies, but she dropped the cookies into the tea and didn’t seem to notice. The tea was in white china cups, and you could look down inside and see the cookie dissolving, settling in a thick layer across the bottom. The dog was skinny, with long nails, like the woman couldn’t remember how to take care of it. She kissed Leo on the cheek when he took the terrier into his arms.

The summer Mouse locked herself in the fridge was the summer Mr. Martin started locking himself out of his garage. The first time it happened, Mouse was alone, playing at Boat, trying to hop as far across his yard as she could without touching the ground, which was really water and full of sharks. She’d asked me to play and I’d refused, just because I was five years older and I could, even though when we stood on chairs and rocked back and forth we moved in rhythm, without even trying, because we could feel the same waves.

“Hey Mouse,” Mr. Martin said. “I seem to have a problem.” The neighborhood was quiet and I was on our front porch, reading, so I could hear as he explained how he’d locked himself out of his garage, and how there was a small window, tiny, around the back, that he didn’t think he’d fit through, but Mouse surely would, and I remember hearing her agree, and it follows that I must have heard the garage door grind open and then fall shut again, but I don’t remember noticing. I remember that she was gone a long time, and that I got impatient because I’d decided I wanted to play Boat after all, and I wanted to hear what Mr. Martin’s garage looked like on the inside, and then I remember being annoyed because when Mouse finally came back to our house she wouldn’t play Boat, and she wouldn’t tell me about Mr. Martin’s garage. She wouldn’t tell me anything. She just shrugged and went to her room, and it was a long time before I could make her come out.

It was late afternoon, and we thought people might be sitting down to Sunday dinner, so Leo swung by the Neosho County Animal Impoundment Facility. It’s not a real pound, like in an old cartoon, but where the cops put the dogs who’ve been seized or taken from abusive homes, or the really messed up strays. Nobody cares what happens to them anymore; the cops aren’t like the Humane Society, checking you out to see if you can provide your Time and Love and A Little Piece of Yourself to every adoptee. The cops just want the crazy dogs out of their hair, so they don’t ask too many questions. Leo pulled the van right up to the gates, the back outfitted with his cages and kennels, the poodle and the Lab and terrier in there already yelping at each other. Should have raised everybody’s eyebrows, and instead they’re all like, how convenient. You came prepared. Leo picked out two, a boxer mix and a pinscher mix. The cops had already had the dogs’ toenails cut down, and Leo was wearing gloves, so he got them muzzled and in the back all right. Once the van started up, though, the new dogs howled and barked and rattled around. “Listen to that racket back there,” Leo said. “Good riddance, am I right?”

The summer Mouse locked herself in the fridge I’d find her with popsicles, the kind that pull apart, and I’d ask her for halves, but she’d refuse to share. I spied on her and found out that she got them from Mr. Martin as thanks for unlocking his garage door from the inside, which she seemed to have to do a lot those days, and I wondered if Mr. Martin was much older than he looked and was getting to be the forgetful kind of crazy that old people got to be. I asked her if the next time Mr. Martin locked himself out I could open the door for him and get a popsicle, and when she looked at me and shook her head, I called her selfish.

We were driving back through Webb City to get on the highway, heading home for the day, when I saw the Found Dog sign. We were stopped at a red light and I put my finger on the car window where the sign was, so if you squinted my index finger was petting the Dalmatian’s head. “That’s a gorgeous dog,” I said. “The owner must be freaking out.”

Leo looked over where I was pointing, and instead of going straight on green he turned right, pulled over, hopped out, and tore the flyer off the pole. “Truman Street,” he said. “You know where that is?”

“I can look at the map,” I said, and I did, without even asking him why he wanted to know. I didn’t think we’d go there; that’s how dumb I am, sometimes.

“What do you think?” Leo asked. “Should we give it a shot?”

“Give what a shot?”

He held the flyer up next to his face, like he was asking if I thought there was a resemblance.

“It’s not for taking,” I said. “They’re just looking for the owner.”

“They been looking for a while,” Leo said, shaking the paper. The flyer was stiff and rumpled, like it had gotten rained on and had time to dry.

“It rained yesterday. We don’t know how long that’s been up.”

“Let me just find out then. Let me call and see if they’ve still got the dog.”

I didn’t see the harm in that, maybe because I don’t see a lot of things I ought to. The dog hadn’t been picked up, and when Leo made a sound in his throat like joy, like relief, when he thanked the person on the phone for making up those flyers, I knew we were locked into going.

“You don’t even know the dog’s name,” I said on the way over, trying to protest and navigate at the same time, which didn’t work out so well because the whole time I was giving reasons not to go, I was interrupting myself with the turns he had to make to get there.

“I can do this,” he said.

“The dog belongs to someone. It probably ran away and some poor family is tearing their hair out looking for it.”

“Since when do you care about that?”

“Since always. You bunch unwanted dogs. This is a Wanted Dog.”

“I want it.”

“It’s Wanted by someone who isn’t just going to sell it on in a week for a little cash.”

“Not a little. A lot of cash. Jorgen told me at the market in Lamar that Parke-Davis needs Dalmatians. They want to test an eye medication. Something to do with all the genetic blindness in the breed. They’re paying top dollar.”

“To Jorgen. Not to you.”

“He’ll give a fair cut.”

I studied the picture on the flyer. “I don’t think this one’s blind.”

“Doesn’t need to be. They want sighted ones, too. Controls, or maybe they drug them and then blind them or something.”

“You’re a jerk,” I said, but Leo didn’t think I meant it.

When I found Mouse in the fridge I called her stupid. “Stupid stupid stupid,” I said. “You stuck yourself in a refrigerator.” I pronounced all five syllables of the word because maybe I didn’t get to open garage doors and eat double-sized popsicles, but I was her big sister and Mouse had better learn it.

“I’m hiding,” Mouse said, and I noticed that she’d been crying but didn’t seem scared, not of running out of air or being trapped forever with her feet in a crisper drawer.

“Fine,” I said, because I’d expected her to be grateful to me for finding her and letting her out, and instead I was learning that she wasn’t scared of any of the things I’d be scared of, and I didn’t understand anymore what did scare her. “Hide, then.” I shut the door on her, and when I finally opened it she tried to bolt past me, like the raccoons when we startled them, but she was all folded up from being squeezed in the fridge and she fell out on her knees. I laughed at her as she picked herself up and walked across the yard into our house. She felt very far away then, and I followed to catch up, but even when we were in the same room after that the feeling stayed, like I’d stretched one of her hair ties too far and made it useless as a string, all the elastic gone out of it.

Leo went up the front walk of 1206 Truman Street with a leash slung over his shoulder, a pink nylon collar dangling down his back. The flyer had said “she,” so Leo took the collar off Muffy, the dead woman’s poodle, and attached a lead. He left Muffy’s tags in the driver’s side drink holder.

He rang the door bell, which set a dog to barking somewhere inside. The man who answered the door was bald on top, round about the middle, with a polo shirt and a nice smile. Leo was still shaking his hand, saying “Hello, Mr. Minton. Dale, if that’s all right,” when the Dalmatian came up behind the man and pressed its head between his legs, barking at Leo. Not aggressive, but curious, just checking out what’s what. Leo knelt down and caught the dog’s collar, leaning over her so all Dale Minton could see was the top of Leo’s head, his shiny hair, pulled back neat. I could see Leo reaching for the collar, catching the tags between his fingers for a quick glance. “Perdita,” he said. “Oh, honey. I’ve been worried sick.”

“Perdita. Like the Disney movie,” I said. “The 101 Dalmatians.

Leo glared, because I wasn’t helping.

“Yeah,” Dale said. “My kids loved the name. They have the movie on video.”

“Is that right?” Leo said, admiringly.

“So this is your dog, then?”

“Sure is. Where’d you find her?”

“Out in the street. We worried she’d get hit.”

“My wife thinks she left the gate open, and Perdita’s got a wandering streak.” Leo let his hands roam over Perdita’s head, behind her flapping ears, under them, down her neck and under her muzzle. He reached for her belly and stroked her sides. He found a place on her stomach that made her sigh, and pulled back to let Dale see. “She always seems to have an itch right about here,” Leo said, and drove his fingers in until the dog whuffed and turned her head up to lick Leo’s face. “Bit tricky to find, but scratch it and she’s yours forever.”

“Is there a Pongo?”

“Like the movie? We’d like to, someday. A Pongo and some puppies, Rolly and Dopey and Dancer and Vixen, or whatever they were.”

“Dopey’s a dwarf,” I said. “And the other two were reindeer.”

“Then I’ll let you do the naming, honey,” Leo said, and the voice he used with me was a lot sharper than the one he used with the dog.

After that things went fast. Leo was gearing up for more questions, where we lived, how long we’d had the dog, but Dale seemed satisfied. Perdita was in heaven, and Leo looked in love, bending his face down so her long, flat tongue could lick his cheek. Dale called the kids into the front hall to say their goodbyes, and Leo offered him some reward money. Dale shook his head. He seemed like an upstanding kind of guy. When we pulled away I had Perdita in my lap. I assumed Leo would pull over in a couple of streets to move her to the back, but he never did. We drove the 45 minutes home that way, with the dog cradled in my lap, her head out the window, tongue hanging out, drooling for joy.

At home Leo got the dogs settled in the kennels out back. It was a good haul, he said, all hale and healthy, serum dogs for sure. That’s not saying all that much. A dog only needs to look like it’ll last seven days to be a serum dog. After that it’s a question of degree. Acute dogs look likely to drop dead in twenty-four hours or less. The laboratories don’t have much use for them. They’re sold lot rate, in bulk, like coffee beans at the supermarket. Leo doesn’t have the usda license to sell direct, but Jorgen does. There are lots of regulars, all Class B dealer licensed. They show up at the Pick n’ Trades, the flea markets, all over Neosho County. After the dogs are out of Leo’s hands, they’re on their way to a lab. Pharmaceuticals, or cosmetics, biology departments, or medical schools. Leo bunches regular and knows what he’s doing: good breeds, good animals, healthy enough to bring serum price. He’ll come home with as much in his pocket as a week at National Beef.

The first night Perdita was caged out back she howled for hours. The moon was almost full, soft and yellow like an egg yolk. I tried to sleep, pressed my head down into the pillow, into the curve of Leo’s shoulder, which is bony but still nice to sleep on. I tried to wedge my hands against my ears, but I couldn’t not-hear the way I’m used to. I got out of bed and went outside. Some of the dogs were sleeping, the old hands, the slow-breathing inmates who didn’t pay Perdita any mind. The dogs from today, the poodle, the terrier, the chocolate Lab, the boxer, and the pinscher, were all anxious. Perdita stopped howling for a moment to look at me, and then just tilted her head back up and screamed. The moon was bright and her white coat glowed, with the spots standing out like little patches of night, spreading, eating away at her like Leo’s gangrene, until there’d be no glowing left. Her teeth were shiny and the light made her eyes look bright and flat. There was a breeze that whipped between my knees and under the long t-shirt I wear to bed, but there was no one to be modest for except the dogs. I stepped closer to the kennels, and the grass under my feet went to dirt, packed hard and scrabbled by dog toes. I put my hand on the latch to Perdita’s cage. I stood there, just like that, thinking about all the useless things that might happen if I let her go. The way she might be hit by a truck on the highway trying to scent her way cross-county, or how Leo’d be angry but mostly just confused at why I’d do a thing like that, take money out of his pocket and bread off our table. How Leo’d always been decent to me, but I’d seen the unkindness in him, and I didn’t want to see it again pointed in my direction. How if Perdita had managed to get lost in Webb City, she’d probably never find home from way out here. How if I let her out, not much good would come of it for anyone. She’d stopped howling while I stood there, looking at me with eyes that were probably supposed to be pleading but in the night were flat and fierce and reflective. “Sorry, honey,” I said, and stepped away from the cage, and the dog started up again, piercing and pathetic. She howled every night for the week before Joplin, until Leo came home without her and I slept a little better.

The summer Mouse locked herself in a fridge, and Mr. Martin locked himself out of his own garage, over and over, the only thing I ever noticed was how Mouse had popsicles and wouldn’t share. I was angry at her and for a long time that was all I remembered about that summer. I couldn’t even tell you when she stopped having popsicles, or when Mr. Martin finally had the rotting furniture hauled away, or when I realized that I had never been able to protect her, not ever, and that whatever’s good about her life now is in spite of me just like it’s in spite of Mom and Mr. Martin and everybody else, and that if I had the opportunity to steal again for her, I’d steal big. Something better than butter, better than a dog, because I let her go away from me and into a garage again and again, and whatever I’m doing now is nothing compared to that.

Joplin was a month ago, so the Rottie’s probably dead by now, and the poodle, the terrier, the Lab. I assume Perdita’s dead, too. It seems dangerous to think otherwise. If she isn’t, I should probably be wishing for her that she was, but mostly I’ve got enough on my own plate without worrying about the dogs. Mouse still sends me the same dumb postcards. The Goodwill still pays six an hour. Leo’s still elbow deep in cow brains. His skin thing is getting worse. He’s got patches so bad they’re swampy with fluid, where his shirts stick and scabs won’t form. He’s always been hourly at National Beef so there’s no insurance. It’s like he’s molting into something new and horrible, and all I want to do is hold his skin closed, press the seams of him together, so he won’t fall apart and nothing in our lives will change because I figure I’m about as happy as I’m going to get the way things are. So I refuse to wish Leo nice, or the dogs free, or my sister happy, or myself forgiven, or much of anything all that much different than it’s likely to get. I just won’t wish them, and then when they all don’t happen, it won’t mean a thing to me. If this is what I get in this world, I’ll take it. Love and squalor, but mostly love. I’ll take it and I’ll take it and I will not be sorry.