Every week in July’s heat you scrub the kennels and shovel pounds of shit into heavy-duty trash bags. The dogs wait patiently, run through gravel as you clean. You grunt, lift the bags into your trunk and drive up the hill to the dump. You heave them off the cliff. You watch their soft landing.
Jill had you do extra at the rescue this week, had you make signs for the Night Fair. There you’re to meet Brian, a new recruit. Jill was always looking for dumb, sensitive kids who wanted to pet dogs so she could lasso them into shoveling shit for free. That’s how you ended up shoveling shit for free.
Brian meets you at your car as you yank out milk crates full of pamphlets and donation jars. You chat idly. He’s just a kid: eighteen, on college break. You tell him that’s the age you teach, and he’s shocked you’re 28. You feel old and young at the same time. You always do. It’s been a war inside you.
He carries chairs, apologizes for a slow, limping gait. Later he tells you it’s from a drunken fall.
The Night Fair is in a wealthy suburb of the city you’re supposed to be helping, your city with its pit-bull-crowded pound, your city with roaming Chihuahuas. This is designer dog territory. You advertise the thick, boxy dogs you have for adoption, the dogs that look like the ones you own, the ones curled up at home with your husband as you try to save more. Brian has a chocolate lab. My only friend, he says. That’s where it starts. Sometimes you meet someone and immediately feel as if they’re a broken part of you, some chipped piece you’d lost, or perhaps some other version of yourself, caught in warped time. You and Brian trip over words, talking easily. You open up too quickly. When he shares about his depression, you tell him of yours. This is why sometimes you fail at teaching. You want to be friend and parent, too.
When you get home, you ask your husband how weird it would be to adopt an eighteen-year-old. His father’s an alcoholic, you say. His parents don’t understand him. You say, I’m worried about him.
You keep in touch. You see him at another rescue event, and then he’s off to school again. You make a care package for him, then worry you’re overstepping. You don’t send it. You hope he’s okay. A month later, Jill fires everyone from the rescue because you all call her on unsafe practices, question where funds are going. She’s nuts, you tell Brian. I’m just sad for the dogs, he says.
Things taper off, two years go by. You see on social media that he has a girlfriend. You have a son. You begin a life, new schedules, new priorities. Then one day you think of him suddenly, the baby near you making soft sleep sounds. You scroll through your phone. The obituary feels indescribably shocking yet inevitable. You don’t know where to put the grief. You feel selfish in thinking you could’ve had any impact at all. But maybe you could have. Your dogs look up at you, two helpless things who don’t understand your language, but understand you.
Emily Costa teaches freshmen at Southern Connecticut State University, where she received her MFA. Her writing can be found in Hobart, Barrelhouse, The RS 500, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Memoir Mixtapes, and elsewhere. You can follow her on twitter @emilylauracosta.
Photo by Hyunwon Jang.