“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.
• • •