Roxy’s cut was called the lion. Her owner, Cecilia, hovered near the entrance of my mother’s pet salon and eyed me while I worked. With a number two clipping blade, I trimmed the back third of Roxy’s body into a short crop, leaving a flag-like tuft at the end of her tail. “Easy,” snapped Cecilia. A straight male groomer could never be gentle enough for these rich old women. I kissed the Portuguese water dog’s snout and her eyes eased shut. She licked my fingers. Cecelia ran her talon of a hand over her fox-fur shawl and stared. That glare could neuter a mastiff.
The front portion of Roxy’s body I kept shaggy with scissors, save for the muzzle, which I gave the same close shave as the rear. The trim left a solid black puddle of freshly shampooed fluff on the floor all around the grooming table. “What a mess,” Cecelia said, as if she’d have anything to do with cleanup.
“Better here than in your living room,” said my mother. She swiped Cecelia’s credit card while I swept the clippings into a dustpan. I often got the feeling my mother was defending me, but it was rarely clear from what. Mommy standing up for her little boy. Only I’m thirty-four.
I poured the clippings into the near-full waste bin and held the door open for Cecilia. A wave of fresh air gushed into the salon. “A bit of a smell in here, isn’t there?” said Cecilia. Roxy walked out ahead of her, both of them leaning back looking oh-so-proud. All the owners acted this way, like they and their purebreds actually owned you.
Once the salon was clear, my mother turned to me and smiled. “Any plans tonight?” She was unperturbed by the snooty old coots. Decades running Fur Dog’s Sake had toughened her, or softened her. It was hard to tell which. She could have retired, but this place was hers. Family Owned and Operated boasted the sign out front. I just worked here and slept in the upstairs apartment.
“Probably watch a movie or something,” I said.
“Have you seen that one I recommended yet?” My mother had a bad habit of asking questions she knew the answers to. “What’s it called?”
“Haven’t gotten around to it.”
“Such a sweet story.”
“I’m not much for rom-coms.”
She sighed. “How about some real life rom?” she said. “Don’t you want some company? Someone to watch your super serious films with?” Who else but a mother could embarrass you in front of no one? And, oh, what I would have done for a girlfriend. The only women I ever met were a hundred years old and married to their dogs.
My mother lifted the trash bag from the bin and cinched it closed. “Nevermind,” she said, trash in hand on her way out the door. “I love you is all.”
I tried to imagine the person I wished would utter those words, her warm breath and sweet, dark hair splayed across my pillow. “Good night,” I said.
When the sound of my mother’s car faded away down the road I stepped out into the cool evening air and fished the black trash bag full of dog fur out of the dumpster. I carried it with me up to my apartment. Alone in bed I tore a hole in the top of the plastic and fell asleep whiffing the soapy smell, hugging the pillowy bag between my legs, my fingers curled through the soft blacks and browns and whites left by that day’s dogs.
In the morning, I woke to panting an inch from my ear. Eyes closed, I swiped my arm across the bedspread, felt the empty trash bag catch my finger and parachute off the bed, heard it crinkle to the floor. When I opened my eyes, I saw the thing perched on my vacant extra pillow, tail wagging against the wooden headboard like a knock on the door.
The dog in my bed was black with tufts of white and brown, and it wasn’t quite a dog. What I mean is it was made of dog — it smelled and felt and breathed like a dog, even showed the same open-mouthed affection as a dog — but no amount of hair-sifting revealed eyes or a moist leather nose. Its mouth wasn’t so much a mouth as a tongue-less, tooth-less hinge in the fur that opened and closed and seeped hot, rank air.
“Sit, boy,” I said, propping myself up in bed. I landed my hand on the fur ball’s neck. “Sit, girl,” I said, and she sat.
She trailed me to the kitchen, blind, colliding with walls and table legs along the way. I scrambled her an egg and she lowered her head over it on the floor. The egg disappeared into the black hole of her mouth and when she lifted her face tiny flecks of yellow peppered it.
“What will I call you?”
She made a sound almost like a cough. I decided to call her Magic.
I didn’t tell my mother about Magic. All day I cut the customer’s dogs’ hair quietly. I took frequent bathroom breaks to check on Magic — this time snoozing on the bedspread, this time sniffling toward the toilet brush. At closing I knotted the bags of hair tight and swung shut the heavy plastic flap over top of the dumpster. What use was lifeless fur when there was Magic?
Walking in my apartment, I hit her with the door. She coughed. There were two yellow circles of urine and a small mound of feces on the pee-pad I’d left in the corner of the living room, like Magic had retained some training from the previous wearers of her fur.
I’d left the TV on quietly, though of course she couldn’t see it. Now I turned up the volume while I cooked salmon steaks for the two of us. A show about the coniferous forests of North America was on. A British woman narrator lamented the near-extinction of a species of wolf that always hunts alone. She voiced over images of one of them loping over snow-dusted terrain until finally its jaws clamped around the throat of a snowshoe hare and it came to rest on its haunches like a good dog.
“Here, Magic,” I said, and she came, her shoulder glancing against the wooden butcher’s block, rattling the cooking utensils hanging from it. I dropped a slab of salmon on the floor and she devoured it.
There was a Saturday regular, a Samoyed named Buck, close to the same size as Magic. Buck was about a thousand in dog years. His hips were so bad he had to lie down in the sink while I shampooed him. Somehow his eyes still hadn’t taken on the milky glaze of most dogs his age. Buck’s owner was an old woman named Prudence. She walked in ahead of Buck, five minutes late, as usual.
“Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Holmdale,” she said. I hated that she coupled my mother and I that way.
“Hello, Prudence,” said my mother. “Hello, Buck,” she sing-songed.
I helped the old dog up into the sink.
“I’ll be back in an hour,” Prudence said to Buck, which meant she’d be back in an hour and a half.
It was just after 5:00, the last appointment of the day, and while I sudsed Buck’s stark white fur my mother emptied the register into the safe.
“Go home,” I said when she was done.
I flicked my wrist at her, launching a cotton-ball of shampoo bubbles onto the floorboards. “Enjoy your youth while you have it,” I joked, motioning to a sad-looking Buck in the sink.
“I should say the same to you,” she said. “When will you find someone?”
At least now, I thought, I have Magic to go home to. Someone who is mine. I smiled at my mother. “Maybe someone will find me.”
She laughed and then she left. I rinsed the soap from Buck’s coat. He lay in the sink, skinny, sickly in his wet fur, almost asleep. I pulled one of our doggy toothbrushes onto my finger like a little sleeve and spread a smear of liver-flavored toothpaste over the length of it.
“Open wide,” I said to Buck. He didn’t move.
With my free hand I lifted Buck’s top lip to reveal his yellowed teeth and black-spotted gums. I ran the brush along the roots and Buck’s eyes opened a slit. There was a creak and snap like a tree limb breaking somewhere far off, and something gave inside Buck’s mouth. I pulled my hand away and with it came a tooth, clattering to rest at the ceramic bottom of the sink. A thin line of red followed it, mixing with the shallow pool of water around Buck. He didn’t make a sound.
I lifted his lip again, pushed my finger back into his mouth, harder this time. Another tooth came free and Buck whimpered.
“Easy, boy,” I said. “Stay.”
I pulled the toothbrush off my finger and walked over to the scissor kit. I took out the pair with the longest blades. Buck lay staring down at his disembodied teeth. His slicked-down coat hugged the ridges of his spine. It was sad, looking at him that way — sad, how his dry fluffed coat made him look so substantial, until you washed away the grime and with it the façade of strength, his brittle skeleton exposed.
With my fingers I tracked the vertebrae in Buck’s neck to its root. He closed his eyes. I raised the scissors over my head and drove the point down through fur and skin, felt the metal click against bone. The blood exploded from him, drawing red tributaries through his snowy-white coat. Buck didn’t make a sound. He didn’t move. Buck dead wasn’t all that different from Buck alive. I turned on the faucet and water gushed from it, gained color as it slid over Buck’s body, red rivers looping down the drain and, slowly, becoming clear.
I set the old trash bag up like a dog bed at the foot of my mattress. I placed the nose, the eyes and tongue and teeth, all together on the black plastic. I thought maybe that’s where the magic was.
When Prudence had showed up for Buck I told her I was sorry, that I’d lost him. I’d left him on the grooming table while I went to the bathroom, it wasn’t even a minute, and he’d worked his way free of the grooming loop, shoved his way out the door. I’d heard the bells jangle and thought it was her, back early to get him.
She’d called the police, of course. Prudence and the two cops and I searched the block until it was dark. “He’ll be back when he’s hungry,” they told her. She was crying so hard they had to drive her home.
Buck was actually in pieces in a bag in my freezer.
In my apartment after Prudence and the cops had left I was greeted by a swampy smell. Magic sat on the floor by the fridge with her tooth-less mouth wrapped around a throw pillow. Beside her a smear of opaque greenish shit streaked the tile. The pee pad was soiled, but dried, that morning’s leftovers. “Bad girl,” I said, quiet, then opened the freezer for the pieces of Buck I thought Magic might use.
“Here, girl,” I said when they were laid out in my bedroom. “Here, Magic.”
Magic jumped up onto the bed. She didn’t bump into anything — she’d learned her way around. While I mopped up her mess, she lay down on the bag with the eyes and nose and tongue and teeth and slept.
In the morning Magic barked. A real dog. I sat up and there she was, blinking, smiling on the comforter beside me, tongue out like a landing strip, tail wagging like a finish line flag.
“Good girl!” I said.
I called my mother and told her about Buck. The lie version. She hung up and called Prudence to make excuses on behalf of her no-good son.
It was Sunday and the salon would be closed. For breakfast I held out carrots for Magic and she cut them down like tiny trees. I gave her a whole apple and she carved through it with her new teeth, seeds and core and all.
Downstairs, I perched her on the grooming table. I combed my fingers through her soft, flowing coat, massaged shampoo suds into her flank and rinsed until she shined. Quietly I tested the words: “I love you,” I said. “I love you, girl.” The trimmer buzzed through to the firm muscular curve of her back legs and snout. I gave Magic the lion. At the end she romped across the hardwood, barked her approval to her majestic reflection. I gathered the clippings and scattered them bag-less on the hollow bottom of the dumpster. When I came back inside Magic had pulled a leash from one of the coat hooks. She sat there at the door with her begging eyes, the leash held loose between her immaculate teeth.
At the park we saw: a dachshund fetching a racquetball, twin corgis mirroring down the sidewalk, a German shepherd dragging its owner across the field. Thankfully, no Roxy, no Cecilia, no grief-crazed Prudence lurching from tree to tree hollering Buck’s name.
Magic pulled hard through the park. She chewed grass, she pissed in bushes and on a bike rack. She sniffed asses. She dug. I unclipped her leash. She dug and dug and dug and then stopped suddenly when a male greyhound came strutting down the path like a super model. Magic abandoned her pit in the dirt and thrust her nose toward his tail. The greyhound’s owner wore jogging gear. Her body was lean and smooth as her dog’s.
“I love that cut!” she said, nodding to Magic.
“Thank you,” I said. “I did her myself.”
Magic and the greyhound were wrestling now, necks and shoulders locked together in a sort of dance. They play-growled and took turns pinning each other.
“What’s her name?” said the woman.
Magic and Royal: a recipe for a fairy tale. The woman hurled a braided segment of rope out into the field. The dogs raced after it side by side, bodies knocking together with every bound. Each grabbed an end of the toy and tugged. A knot tightened behind my sternum.
“Rhoda,” the woman said, extending her hand.
I shook it. “I’m Shermon.”
When I looked back, Magic alone had the rope in her mouth and Royal was circling around behind her. He climbed up onto her, front paws planted at the start of Magic’s mane. She didn’t resist. She might even have leaned into him.
“I told Royal never on the first date,” said Rhoda, laughing.
“Magic!” I yelled. “Magic, come!”
Royal was really pumping now. Magic dropped the rope and snaked her neck around. She licked at Royal’s paws on her back.
“Don’t worry,” Rhoda said. “He’s snipped.” With her fingers she mimed scissors, but all I was thinking was how that wasn’t even Magic’s tongue she was lapping with and who had gotten it for her in the first place? I looked at Rhoda and told her her damn dog could use a good grooming.
I was digging in my pocket for the key to the salon and Magic wouldn’t stop pulling toward the dumpster. She pawed at the walls of it, nudged the side of her face against its edge and whined.
“What is it, Magic?”
I lifted the hinged plastic lid enough to poke my head over the rim. There at the bottom were three little clumps of fluff, the same black and brown and white as Magic, walking circles around one another. Magic barked, the piercing sound of it echoing against the dumpster walls, her airy cough a distant memory.
I named the pups Hocus, Pocus, and Alakazam — Ali for short. They sucked up water through their black-hole mouths and skittered across the floors, against cabinet doors and chair feet, like ping pong balls. Magic watched over her pups. She chewed their food and spat it into muddy mounds on the floor in front of them. If I tried to pick any of them up, she growled, a low simmering grumble like a motor.
On Monday my mother showed up at the closed salon with Prudence.
“Any sign of Buck?” said Prudence.
My mother shook her head at me. “How does a dog that old wiggle free of the table?”
“It was only a minute,” I said. “I swear.”
My mother inspected the grooming arm and the ring of nylon dangling from it. “He’s lucky he didn’t hang himself.”
“He’s still out there,” said Prudence. “I know he is.”
“He can’t have gone far,” said my mother. “Those hips.” Prudence went outside and called her dog’s name at the top of her old voice. My mother waved for me to follow. “Help us.”
“He probably crawled off somewhere to die in peace.”
She rolled her eyes. “Then he won’t be hard to find.”
We searched, the three of us walking overlapping circles. I covered a square half-mile dizzying myself. Prudence circled the same spaces over and over, like her shoe soles might wear through the concrete and find Buck resting underneath and happily alive.
When the sun was at its peak the women led back into the salon. My mother pointed at the door to the staircase. “Can we come up for a sip of something?” she said.
I sidestepped between the door and her. “I’ll bring you down something cold.”
At last I was alone again with Magic. While we’d futilely searched, Magic had ripped open a couch cushion and dug its filling into a nest for her pups. “Bad,” I scolded. “Bad.” Hocus, Pocus, and Ali huddled in the cloud of white stuffing. Magic stood beside them, tail alert, on guard. I kneeled to pet her and she shirked my open hand. I held a leash in front of her and she ignored it. “You hungry, girl?”
In the kitchen, I boiled a chicken whole. Magic watched from the doorway while the buttery steam filled the room. She stayed between me and her pups, always. Finally, I laid the plated chicken on the floor and called to her. Magic wouldn’t move. I tore a drumstick from the chicken and tossed it her way. She sniffed the bone and recoiled. “What, then?” I said. Magic stared toward the top of the fridge and swept the floor with her tail.
In the freezer, Buck’s fur had iced flat against the hunks of his body. I lowered him in his open bag onto the floor to thaw and whistled for Magic to come. She herded her pups in ahead of her and they nuzzled Buck’s matted fur. Magic nosed his pink insides. “Eat,” I said, and Magic listened. She took tiny balls of his body in her jaws and ground them into pulp. There was nothing Magic wouldn’t do for her little ones. The pups sucked the slushy piles of meat like fruit.
On Tuesday at opening Cecelia was waiting outside with Roxy squirming against her leash. “Good morning, Cecelia,” I said and let them in. “What a nice surprise.”
She extended one spindly finger into my chest. “What have you done to my Roxy?”
Roxy stared straight ahead. “She looks fine.”
“She shit all over the floor overnight. Fine? She shredded my whole goddamn sofa.”
From behind me, my mother came and landed one hand on each of our shoulders, her arms bridging the distance between Cecelia and I. “Did Roxy eat anything different?”
“Ever since she was in here she’s been gnawing at her tail like a milk-bone.” I could see the base of Roxy’s tail was raw. “She’s not herself,” Cecelia said. “She won’t let me touch her.”
“Bring her in,” said my mother and Cecelia unclasped the leash.
Roxy darted for the staircase door. She shouldered straight into it and barked.
“Easy, girl,” I said, tiptoeing toward her. She snarled.
“What did you do to her?” Cecelia wailed and then, like a serpent, her fox-fur shawl slithered from her neck and across the floor to Roxy’s side. The shawl blinked and bared its teeth. It growled and tried to wedge under the door. Cecelia threw her purse at it. Channels of tears traced down her cheeks. My mother hid behind the register and Cecelia crouched behind the plush recliner, jerking her hands away from its furry fabric as if afraid it might also come to life.
I yanked the cord of a floor lamp from the wall, lifted it, upside down, its weighted foot above my head. Roxy and the fox rattled the wooden door in its frame. I let the lamp fall like a carnival mallet onto the fox pelt, once, twice, the second blow crunching at its taxidermied head. The fox stopped moving and Roxy clamped onto the pole of the lamp with her teeth. Cecelia screamed.
With the lamp I leveraged Roxy toward the door. I propped it, those damn welcome bells clanking, and hurled the lamp with Roxy attached out onto the sidewalk. My mother held the phone to her ear. She pleaded for animal control.
I kicked aside the lifeless fox skin and bounded up the stairs to my apartment. Inside, Magic sprung to attention, teeth bared, pups in tow. Her whole body vibrated. Cecelia’s fists pounded the locked door, her muffled, cracking voice repeating, “What did you do? What did you do?”
“It’s okay, Magic,” I cooed. “You’re okay, girl.” Her borrowed tongue flitted a lap around her dripping mouth. I could hear my mother climbing the stairs, her key ring jangling. “Come on, girl,” I said to Magic. Hocus, Pocus, and Ali’s tiny growls joined the chorus. “Here,” I pleaded, crouching, pointing to my eyes and nose and tongue and teeth, begging them to make my body a disappearing act.
David Joseph’s creative work has been featured in Monkeybicycle, Hobart, NPR, Buzzfeed, W.W. Norton’s Hint Fiction anthology, and elsewhere. He earned his BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University and is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University. Connect with him on Twitter @dfhjoseph.