Here he is, for what might be the last time again, at Lewton’s Earth Snacks, corner of Alexander and Kempf.
Tonight, in the Pasta Products aisle, Dale’s examining a six-dollar box of armadillos and cheese. He turns it over to check the nutrition facts and mission statement. Farm-to-fork, gluten free, non-animal enzymes—and something nice happens with the proceeds. All good, Dale acknowledges, and he switches to face the cartoon beast on the box’s front.
This little gray fellow is in fluorescent bike shorts. His pupils are fully dilated and he’s beaming. He’s unaware that, as Dale’s steely, prophetic ex once said on some pot-peddling acquaintance’s porch while buttoning her coat, “Nothing’s static.”
Dale gives the box of armadillos a shake, as if to reset the thought, Etch A Sketch-style. Now, a decision: Classic Cheddar? Blanco Cheddar? Cheddar Jack? Bitin’ Buffalo?
“Armand’s,” Kara had said earlier, her disappearing arm dangling from the bed, her bony finger tracing splits in the hardwood. “Just get me Armand’s, Dale. I don’t care what kind.” So he went.
These days, Dale’s wearing his keys more often than his underwear. In the car, he’d actually told his trusty air freshener, for what must have been the seven-hundred-fifty-two-thousandth time, “Everything will be fine.” Alas, the hanging fir had no response. It was, itself, long faded.
Really, it was something of a miracle that Kara was hungry at all. The doctor had noted last week, in a particularly clinical moment outside her room in the ICU, “Well, your sister’s dying.” This was in direct response to Dale when he’d probed: “Why won’t Kara drink her kombucha?”
Translated, it meant, “Nothing’s static.”
“You can’t write this shit,” Kara had said on the first ride home. “I’m dying with no tits. I think Susie Hampton told me this would happen in fucking second grade.” Only the shitty can tell the future, she’d added. Then, she’d mused up her tombstone—laughing, coughing.
Hospice made her curse more; made her limply embrace clichés. She was freer than the fragrant, college kid kind of free she’d subscribed to for much of her years. Dale had even caught her throwing out her dream-catcher her first night back. The sight was almost adulterous. It had made him jump.
At Lewton’s, Dale exhales.
“Okay,” he says. He’s choosing Blanco Cheddar, and he hopes she will like it. He has to hurry home. If he’s too late, she might refuse it. He hustles to the register. His rain jacket’s making some noise.
The cashier at Lewton’s tonight looks familiar. Dale can see in this gentleman’s face a sense of happiness likely sought out by the designers of mac and cheese mascots. Fitting, he thinks. Swap out Armand the Armadillo for a significantly fleshier, jollier Percy the Person You Pay.
Last time Dale was here, Percy was in training; this was two, three weeks back. And as if by magic, Percy is now much thinner. Not sick thin, though; not Kara thin. But thin—like a handsome bust easing out of marble, quite frankly.
“Evening, sir,” Percy says. “Will that be all?”
“Yes,” Dale says, and he fumbles for his wallet, but he can’t stop staring at Percy, and though he doesn’t have much time he asks him how the job’s going and if he’s lost some weight.
“That’s very flattering,” Percy says, bagging up the Armand’s, and he gets real candid. “You know, it’s funny you mention those two things together like that, because ever since I started working at Lewton’s, I’ve been feeling a lot better. I’m new in town, and I got myself a membership at the Y and all, but I don’t have much time to make use of it. My manager and I, we’ve got this joke that it’s all the stocking and receipt-ripping that’s got me sweating. But you know, sir, it’s just so funny you noticed, and so nice, because I can’t quite figure it out for myself. Guess this place is the real deal, huh? Receipt in the bag?”
“Sure,” Dale says, and he wants to hang in Percy’s tale of health food store mysticism for a while longer, but he can’t, really. He’s got to get home.
But when he picks his nose up over the counter, he notices a dog, just lying there at Percy’s feet.
A German shepherd, like Lollie, the old one he and Kara had had as kids, all amber-eyed and regal. It was Mom who had let Kara name Lollie, Dale remembers. A stupid name, but he smiles.
The Lewton’s dog is no Lollie. She’s old, unleashed, on a fleece blanket, panting in front of a box fan, kind of stinking up the place. She’s in transition, Dale notices, one that runs counter to Percy’s transition; to Kara’s transition—in that she looks like she’s getting fatter.
“She’s a beauty, ain’t she?” Percy says. “Guess she came in here a few weeks ago. No tags on her, and she’s not chipped or anything. She was very sick, sir. Emaciated. Covered in mange. Ernie Lewton, bless his heart; he fed her, put her on that throw, gave her some air.”
Percy guesses that Ernie tosses the dog a ball after closing time. Dale can see it, bouncing down the yellowed tile, knocking over bottles of supplements. He sees Ernie, an old man, dutifully fetch it himself.
“She’s kind of with us now, you know?” Percy says. “We call her Lucy.”
Dale thinks he might ask about Ernie’s potential adoption plans regarding Lucy, because he’s curious. “What’s the point of rehab?” Kara had intoned just yesterday. Dale, too, wondered.
But that’s when the door to Lewton’s opens. The bell sounds and in walks a family; the kind that might have a few bumper stickers on their minivan. A mother and two girls. One’s maybe eight; the other, thirteen. The eldest is in muddy soccer gear.
Dale wants to leave—needs to, even. But as he slowly takes his bag from Percy, he’s watching the family meander around Lewton’s. “You can each get one treat,” Mommy says in exhaustion. Her mind is probably somewhere else, like picking up her husband’s vitamins and getting back in time for “Survivor.” This clan subsists on such moments, Dale thinks. He just knows it.
What Dale doesn’t know is this: Soon, Soccer Girl’s going to approach the register and ask Percy about an energy bar, and in doing so she’s going to see Lucy, panting on her blanket, getting fat. And when she sees this dog, Soccer Girl will scream. She will scream in pure, unapologetic love for this creature, and Percy will tell her Lucy’s story—but no, her name’s not Lucy, it’s Sandy, and she ran away last year, and goodness, we thought Sandy was dead.
And Dale’s going to watch Soccer Girl’s weepy collapse, a scene so alien in its joyfulness, in which Mommy and Sis gather around in disbelief; in which Percy reaches for his ghost belly so as to mount the booming yuk he lets out in the image of everyone who’d ever said, “Well, would you look at that?”
Paul Simon’s going to come on the radio. It’ll be a sickeningly synchronistic number: 1972’s “Mother And Child Reunion.” It’s a song that had often played at the sleepy café where Dale used to work; a song that went on once in the car as he unyieldingly kissed Steely, Prophetic Ex; a song that Kara always hated, and one which, now especially, foretold of an approaching truth, assuming you believe in Heaven.
Dale’s going to get real overwhelmed and run out; Blanco Cheddar Armand’s rattling around at his side, his rain jacket noisier than ever. He’s going to speed on the way home, cutting through puddles, shouting all the way to his air freshener, “Everything will be fine!”
He’ll be eager to tell the whole town of this inverted Bermuda Triangle at the corner of Alexander and Kempf. He will dream of erecting a new sign outside Lewton’s, one promising not just Earth Snacks, but instantaneous best case scenarios. “LEWTON’S,” he imagines, “A PLACE WHERE THINGS GO TO GET STATIC AGAIN.”
But when Dale enters the bedroom—all wet and breathless, saying, “Kara, come with me”—he will find that she has gone already, on her own terms.
He’ll drop the bag and sit at her feet. Lewton’s will close. Then tomorrow will start up, yanking its own leash; every hour fraying it.