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Black Dog, White Rhino by Molly Laich


Not drinking. What can I say? I didn’t want to do it anymore. Turns out it’s not enough to half-heartedly want to change for someone else, out of politeness. Without a little taste, my brain went to dark, boring places. It itched. I didn’t like it.
     I was Brian’s live-in caregiver, and then his Aunt Gladys moved in with us. On my third sober night since the incident, Gladys took Brian to a Pixar movie about sentient food that I claimed to have already seen. “You go have fun,” I said. “I’ll just be right here in this living room working on the hot air balloon jigsaw puzzle.”
     Brian’s dog followed me from room to room, like some animal. She was a 6-year-old black lab named Sadie, and she was good to the core. She knew how to bring Brian his remote control. He just had to say, “Sadie: TV time.” She followed behind his wheelchair, ready to pick up any dropped item.
     The dog looked up at me with wet eyes that said, “Don’t go.” She watched me suck in my cheeks and fluff my hair in the hallway mirror. I went out to the garage thinking I was going to drive away with the van, but of course they’d taken it.
     “The Rhino is better than nothing, right?”
     Sadie wagged her tail. It was wrong to tease the dog into thinking she was invited.
     The only bar within walking distance from Brian’s house is technically called “The White Rhino,” but the word “white” has been burnt out on the roadside sign for I don’t know how long. Inside and out, it’s a concrete shoebox. There’s just the one long bar to sit at. No tables. No food. They don’t have so much as a bag of fucking pretzels for sale. I’d been there once or twice before and nothing good ever happened.
     The bartender was a slim but ugly girl about my age. She turned around and I thought I caught the beginnings of a lower back tattoo poking through her jeans. I sat down near a kid with long hair hanging down in his face. A sharp nose pointed through at the Amstel Light in front of him.  “I mean, excuse me,” he said to the bartender. “Hello!”
     She nodded and looked at me. “PBR?”
     “No,” I said. “Why would you think that?”
     “Jager Bomb?” the man at the bar said. “Nancy, can we get three jager bombs over here? What’s your name?”
     “Dorothy,” I said.
     “Dorothy,” He put a wet hand out and I shook it. “My name’s George.” He leaned in for a mock whisper. “Those guys down at the end of the bar have made it clear that they do not like jager bombs. But you’re awesome.”
     If you strained you could scarcely overhear the men talking about the Detroit Lions as though they were on the fucking team and fed up with carrying the weight all these years.
     “What do you say, Dorothy?” the bartender asked me, with a look that said something like “Welcome to the jungle?” but quizzically, and no need to finish the thought.
     “I’m in, of course.”
     “You’re cute,” George said. “I like your dimples,” which was weird only because I couldn’t remember smiling.
     Nancy laid our doom out in front of us: two shots of cough syrup and a larger glass of energy drink to drop them in.
     “What is this?” George said to the bartender. “Where’s yours?”
     “I’m not drinking Jagermeister.” She looked at me and said, “We’ve been over this.”
     They compromised on tequila and she poured herself one, not bothering with the salt and lemon.
     George said, “Bombs away!” right before. I was sorry I hadn’t realized I could bow out of the Jager for something better like Nancy had.
     George told me all about himself and I was happy to listen. He’d done two tours in Iraq. It was terrible there. He’d seen things he wished he hadn’t, but try as he might he couldn’t forget them. They sent him home with a sack load of money. I looked to the bartender and she nodded. It’s all true.
     “I’m writing a novel,” he said. “I’m going to have Nancy read it as soon as I get it copyrighted. I need to put it on a CD. Really it would make a better screenplay. It’s about what happened at the beginning of time, but not this time, a different time that happened behind the sun, but not our sun. You’d have to read it to understand.”
     “Maybe I’ll just wait for the movie,” I said.
     “Nancy, can I get some singles for the jukebox?” He waved a five-dollar bill around. “Please Nancy. Money for the jukebox, please.”
     She wiped a glass mug raw in her hands. “No Crocodile Rock,” she said.
     “I promise.”
     “No Cheeseburger in Paradise, and no Margaritaville.”
     “Okay, okay.” To me he said, “Bossy, this one. What do you want to hear? Anything at all.”
     “Bill Withers,” I said.
     “I don’t know who that is. Watch this. I’ll play us something awesome.”
     Nancy bent down behind the bar to put the glass mug away and I caught sight of the tattoo again. “Is that the symbol for Pi?” I asked, but no one was listening.
     George came back from the Jukebox and sat down with that Everlast song blasting behind him, the one that goes, “And then you really might know what it’s like…”
     “Oh lord,” Nancy said. She turned a knob behind the bar to lower the music, and I noticed she wasn’t quite as ugly as I first thought.
     George sang along with the music and waved his long, white fingers through the air. I thought he must be homosexual, and I wondered if it was lonely for him, to be a gay soldier in the military. The football fans had long since left. We did more shots. I switched to whiskey and drank all of it on George’s dime. Nancy turned the closed sign over in the window. “Fuck it,” she said. The rhino was one of those bars that would just close mid-sentence in broad daylight for no reason, but usually when that happened, they made me leave. Now all of us were drinking on the house. Nancy even let us smoke cigarettes.
     I told them about Brian and Sadie, and my betrayal, being there.
     “My boyfriend is a sweet guy,” Nancy said. “He is. But sometimes I think he just doesn’t know me at all.”
     “There’s this parrot,” George said. “They trained this certain kind of parrot that’s really smart.”
     “The African grey parrot,” Nancy said.
     “Right. Its owner trained him to know all these words. They were always together, for twenty years. One day the parrot got sick and his owner had to leave him overnight at the bird hospital. But the parrot didn’t understand. It kept saying, ‘Don’t go.’ ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘I love you.’”
     “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”
     “Sad, definitely,” Nancy said. “Did the parrot really use contractions?”
     Soon we were taking our shoes off and weeping over all the animal stories.
     “Cows walking in line to the slaughter!” I said.
     “Polar bears drowning for lack of ice caps.”
     “Unrequited love!” Nancy wailed.
     “Come home with me,” George said. “Both of you can come. I have awesome music and the dankest weed ever.”
     Nancy was zipping up her coat. She pulled her long ponytail free of it and now I thought she was almost pretty. She may have even been prettier than me, from certain angles.
     “My boyfriend’s on his way to pick me up,” She said.
     “He doesn’t understand you,” I said. “You don’t need him.”
     But then the boyfriend came, and it all made sense. He looked both handsome and kind. George seemed to be thinking the same thing. “What choice does she have?” he said.
     The bar spit us out into the cold parking lot. Traffic whizzed in a million directions. The darkness had only just arrived a second ago. Before it had been raining. The remainder hung in the air, and I mistook the dampness on my skin for a friendly ghost. The couple started to walk away from us. “Be careful,” Nancy said: to me, or George, or both?
     George lived just two blocks in the other direction, making him four blocks from Brian. I was excited by the prospect of a new homosexual friend living so close. George walked fast. It was a little cold for the shorts and sandals he was wearing. He talked incomprehensibly about the plot of his novel. He told me how good his pot was and how much I would love being stoned on it.
     It looked like a dead person lived in his apartment. There were chicken bones on the living room floor, a buzzing in the kitchen, cans, boxes and papers everywhere. “Let me just find the jar,” George said. He went around the room picking up pillows and clothes. There was just a single, tiny nugget inside. He had a bong the size of a small child, and we smoked up what little weed he had in just one hit apiece.
     “I have a big bowl around here we can scrape,” George said, and went back to the frantic searching.
     “It’s okay,” I said. Even just the one hit was enough. It took me inside my body and showed me how drunk I was. Brian and Gladys would probably be home by now. I saw the dog’s tail wagging. I was starting to feel sorry as hell that I’d come. George found the bowl and handed it to me with an unrolled paperclip already jutting out the side.
     “I only smoke the dankest weed in that thing,” he assured me. “Can I read you my novel?”
     Things were bleak, but scraping the bowl would give me something to do while I listened at least. George read a sentence, something about pigs strapped with explosives, armies of bipedal horses and other things too awful to recall. George would read a sentence, stop, look at me and explain what the thing he just read meant.
     I had a good thimble full of goopy resin uncovered. “Let’s smoke this,” I told him. Smoking resin is low. It gives you a quick, dirty buzz that lifts you up about as high as a headache and just as quickly drops you down again, but anything was better than listening to him read from his schizophrenic novel.
     “We dropped a bomb on an elementary school,” he said.
     “What are you talking about?”
     “I’m telling you, somebody fucked up the coordinates and that’s what happened. It was an accident, but it’s true. We had to go in and clean up after it. We were picking up arms and legs and putting them in trash bags.”
     What do you say to something like that? Maybe you can try to tell yourself it might not be true. The kid was a lunatic, after all, but even if it didn’t quite happen that way, it’s true enough. Limbs break off all the time, and not just off of grown ups, but kids.
     “Will you be my girlfriend?” George said. He moved closer to me on the couch and I skirted away.
     “You’re gay.”
     “I’m bisexual,” George insisted.
     I felt betrayed and tired. Suddenly four blocks seemed like a long walk home.
     “Let me eat you out, please,” George said.
     “Gross,” I said.
     “Just for a half hour,” he said.
     “That’s a tremendous amount of time!”
     He moved closer and put his hand on my leg. I got up and took a step backward. My shoe got caught on a Bud Light can. I acted like it was an insect, started shaking it off like “Ew. Get it off of me.” I should have been in the van driving home from the Pixar movie with Brian, and there I was in the apartment of a trained soldier who wanted something I didn’t want to give him. I should have been scared, but I wasn’t. I felt deflated. He got down on the ground and clung to my pant leg.
     “Just stay here and live with me. I can take care of you.”
     “You’re ruining everything,” I said.
     “I know,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
     I didn’t know what to do. I kicked my leg away from his grip and I went out the opposite door we came in through. It opened into a courtyard of green hedges. Not a maze, exactly, but I was drunk and got turned around in the path anyway. If I can just get home and see Brian, I thought. I can put this slip behind me. I resolved to do better.
     I made my way toward the sound of traffic and spinning red lights. Brian lived just off the busy street. I’m sure there was a shorter way through the neighborhood but I didn’t know what it was. There’d been an incident in the road. A squad car had parked diagonally to block the lane and the cop was standing outside of it, redirecting traffic. I was stunned in place—afraid of him because he was a cop and I was me.
     “What is it?” Someone on the sidewalk next to me said.
     “Dead dog,” the other replied.
     For a brief moment just before my phone rang, I thought maybe the universe was indifferent, and there was about a fifty percent chance the dead dog in the street might not be Sadie. But then they called me, and I knew.
     I had Brian’s ringtone set to quacking ducks. A black man and an Indian were standing on the street corner. I pressed the phone quiet and the men stared at me. The ducks went off again, I shut them up, and it kept going on this way. “You’ve got a duck in your pocket,” the black man said.
     I thought: keep it up, Brian. We can do this all night.
     
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Molly Laich makes up stories in Seattle. Read about her secret life at http://www.mollylaich.com.