by Justine Talbot —
The smell was outrageous, but it was beyond my control. Every time I emptied the bowl of stinking dog food my sister filled it again, fuller than before. An offering, she called it. “So the howls don’t keep you awake at night.”But I never heard any howls. All I heard most nights were sirens.
At the time my sister Adriana lived above a Chinese restaurant on Second Avenue, a few blocks from the deli where she used to work. The same place I worked. That was why I was there: to hold her place, pose as her until she could be herself again. Until then, I was close enough. I probably weighed the same, or even less, and I knew how to make a decent sandwich.
To help me help my sister, my dad had packed my bag, bought my train ticket and driven me to the station, but he hadn’t really explained what was going on with Adriana.
“Why do I have to go there?” I asked for the third time while we waited for the six a.m. train.
“Your sister’s not feeling well,” he said, staring at the empty tracks. “You’ve got to help her so she doesn’t lose her job.”
“Why can’t she just come home already?”
“Because she moved out, okay? Once you move out, you don’t move back unless you’re desperate.”
“She sounds pretty desperate.”
“Well she’s still got six months on her lease, and I’m not paying.” I believed him then. So I glared and groaned and got on the train.
When I arrived at Adriana’s apartment with my lone duffel bag, the first thing she did was move her pillow out of her closet-sized bedroom and onto the couch.
“Hey, what are you doing?” I asked, right on cue. “I don’t want to put you out. I’m here to help.”
“Exactly,” she said. “You’re helping. So I’ll take the couch.”
“Why does anyone have to take the couch?” She had a double bed, which completely filled the closet-room. “I could sleep with my head by your feet.”
“Stop it, Robbie. We’re too old to share a bedroom.”
“We’ve shared a bedroom half our lives.” Whenever our alcoholic Aunt Rosemary was living with us, she got my room, and that was pretty often. It got to where I couldn’t even hope for privacy because that meant hoping for my aunt to be on a bender, away from my dad’s authoritarian influence and shacking up with someone even worse.
“We’re too old now,” my sister said again. So that was the end of that.
You can start to see how I lacked a will of my own where my family was concerned.
Anyway, I figured out pretty quick that my sister didn’t want to share a bedroom because she didn’t sleep. She just talked to her imaginary dog.
“I’m sorry,” I heard her say that first night. “He won’t stay long. You can sleep on the bed again as soon as he leaves.”
“Who are you talking to?” I called through the closet-room’s plywood wall. “I’m dreaming,” she called back.
In the morning I finally saw it, and by it I mean a whole lot of things. I saw Adriana pet the air in front of her and scratch behind its ears. I saw her adjust her body so an invisible head could rest on her stomach and start to doze with her arm flung out around a phantom. I saw her put out the dog food.
But it wasn’t my job to ask questions. My job was in the deli.
When I first got to Jason’s I expected the boss to make a big deal about me showing up in place of my sister, who had already missed a week of work, but all he said about it was “I spoke to your father.” For all I know they had some sacred deli owner code.
Jason’s was a kosher deli, not aggressively Italian like my dad’s. My first shift was a lot of slicing pastrami and frying onions and stuffing containers full of tuna salad and scraping burnt-on grease. It was all pretty familiar territory. Still, I couldn’t wait to go back to Adriana’s apartment and shower.
I opened the door to a wall of stink. It was June in Manhattan, and the apartment was completely airless. The gruelly pink dog food sat in the kitchen, exactly where my sister had left it that morning, and it already smelled rotten.
“Okay, you know I have to ask … what’s with the dog food?”
“It’s for Dog.”
“Dog?” I blinked. “Who’s Dog?”
“Dog is who the food is for.” That’s all she said at first. I didn’t find out the food was an offering for my benefit until later.
Working at the deli kept me busy, at least. I didn’t worry while I was there, or think too hard, or even really notice what was going on most of the time. People did ask a lot more dumb questions at Jason’s than they did at my dad’s deli, though. I guess most of the dumb ones were tourists.
“What kind of sandwiches do you have?” “What kind of soup do you have?” “What kind of meat do you have?”
I always said the same thing in response: “All kinds.”
Meanwhile, my sister had stopped eating meat. I had to cook her pasta and vegetables every night or she would blow all her money on overpriced bean burgers, which were always delivered by the same guy with a braided beard. When I asked her why, after practically being born with a meatball hero in one hand and chicken parm in the other, she suddenly gave it up, she just said she had “moral reasons.” I asked her if she had stopped going outside for moral reasons, too. She said she didn’t want to talk about it.
“What about the dog food?” I asked one day. By that time the mound of it she had left on the kitchen floor was a greenish-black color and appeared to be growing.
“Dogs are different.”
“Yeah, but what’s in their food? Not free-range chickens, right? Or grass-fed, organic—”
“Why don’t you do your own research?” she interrupted. “Only start with your own food.”
I told her I would. I didn’t.
Beyond making veiled accusations, my sister’s daily routine involved drinking herbal tea, petting her imaginary dog, and watching cable TV. I tried to convince her to cancel the TV to cut back on expenses, but she yelled at me that I was just as cheap as Dad every time I brought it up. She seemed to forget that I was the one making her rent money, doing her job.
Then again, she didn’t ask me to do it. Dad did that. Adriana spent a lot of time lying in her couch-bed, combing the job boards for employers “more in line with her values” than Jason’s Deli. I couldn’t figure out whether she was self-sabotaging because she didn’t actually want to leave the apartment or if she was applying to things and they just never called her. I tried not to ask too many questions.
But after about a week I just couldn’t take it anymore. I sat her down on the couch-bed, the only piece of furniture in the apartment besides the actual bed, and approached it like a real intervention. “You’ve got to explain this dog stuff to me,” I said, deadly serious.
Adriana was all swampy eyes and fake innocence. “What dog stuff?”
“You spent all night saying ‘Who’s a good boy! You are!’ You think I can’t hear you?” “Who says I was talking to a dog?”
“And the dog food? Which is for someone named Dog?” She sighed. “If you must know, I’m grieving.” “Grieving who? Dog?”
“Yeah, Dog was a stray I took in a couple weeks ago.” She looked away and started tugging at a loose thread on the couch-bed. “I didn’t even get a chance to name him.”
“You had a dog? In this two-room apartment?” “For about a day.”
Honestly, I was a little impressed. Growing up, she always took at least a week to kill her plants. “How did he die?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay,” I said. “That’s fine. You don’t have to talk about it. But I really think you should go out and see somebody.”
“See who?” She probably thought I meant a therapist. “Who am I supposed to see, Robbie?”
“I don’t know, somebody! It’s unhealthy to be cooped up alone all day.”
I wasn’t much better off, though. I had no friends in New York, or really anywhere anymore. Nobody I knew back home ever came into the city except to see a show and take pictures in front of the tree at Christmas.
So I developed a routine of my own. After work I would walk at random until I hit some famous landmark, usually either the Empire State Building or the main branch of the New York Public Library. Then I got a small coffee, spent a few minutes window-watching all the business casual passersby, and walked back when I was finished. I always stopped by the grocery store on my way home so Adriana wouldn’t waste her money on bean burgers.
“What the heck is this food?” she asked every night when I put it on her plate. “Meatless,” I told her. “And eggless and cheeseless.”
That was enough to get her to eat.
I usually ended up having the same thing. That way I wouldn’t have to make two dinners after preparing food all day. Convenience aside, I wasn’t happy about it. I’ve never been big on green food.
Anyway, have you ever tried to eat with a pile of rotting meat in the corner of the room?
Dinners were a nightmare all around.
Adriana’s phone usually rang while we were eating. It was always Dad, but she refused to answer. One night I called him back on my phone and asked him what I should do about my loneliness.
“You’re asking me how to make friends? Are you serious?”
He always got away with things by convincing my sister and me that we weren’t serious. “Not in general,” I said quickly. “But how do I make friends, here in Manhattan?”
“How in hell do I know? New York’s always been too much town for me.”
“Really?” I couldn’t remember ever hearing him admit that something was too much for him.
“Why do you think I’ve barely left Suffolk County my whole life?” I had never given it much thought, to be honest.
Two weeks went by. I smelled like meat all the time, even after I showered, which never happened at home. I guess it was because Adriana’s shower only produced a cold trickle, and at home I could shower as long and as hot as I wanted. That’s something I learned pretty quickly: New Yorkers are never clean and neither are their clothes.
In my case, the smell of the rotting dog food didn’t help, either. It seeped into my skin, mingling with a smell much closer to dog than food.
I hit my breaking point with the whole arrangement one night when I got home and Adriana was stretched out on her couch-bed in the dark, TV blaring. “What are you doing?” I demanded.
“Watching Family Feud,” she said calmly. “Come watch.” “I need to shower first.”
“Okay.” But when I sat down on the couch she screamed. “Get up!” she shrieked. “You’re sitting on him!”
I jumped up immediately, but only because I was mad.
“That’s enough!” I thundered, sounding a whole lot like someone we both knew. “I’m sick of this shit! Why are you hallucinating dead dogs? Why can’t you work anymore? Why can’t you leave this apartment, walk down the street and do the same thing we’ve always done?”
Adriana didn’t move or match my tone or give any indication that she was upset. “I saw a documentary,” she said vaguely.
“You can’t be serious.”
“I am serious, Dad,” she spat. “I saw a documentary.” “That’s a cop-out.”
“It’s not a cop-out. First I saw a documentary and then I read a book.” “A book?”
“Yeah, and after I finished the book I took Dog for a walk, but he got loose somehow and got hit by an SUV, and then his body disappeared in front of my eyes.”
“Disappeared, Robbie! But you don’t have to worry, because he’s not gone.”
In that moment, her eyes looked so bright and so green I honestly thought they were glowing. It was probably the light from the TV.
“You’ve completely lost it,” I told her. I sat down on the couch again, exhausted by my sister’s craziness and my own annoyance, but she shoved me so hard I fell on the floor. “Shit! You’re acting just like Aunt Rosemary.”
“You know I don’t drink!”
“Yeah, well maybe a drink would help you. At least when she was drinking Rosemary functioned!”
“I don’t think so!”
I slammed the door to my closet bedroom. Ten minutes later I opened it to see what Adriana wanted for dinner, but she was gone. For the first time in over a month, my sister had left her apartment.
I was alone.
I didn’t shower or eat. I just sat on the couch and watched Family Feud, texting her a half-assed apology every hour or so and waiting for her to come back. But she didn’t come home at all that night. She wouldn’t until morning, when I really was sorry.
After I finally gave up on game shows, changed and brushed my teeth, I went to the kitchen for a glass of water. For the first time I noticed that the dog food bowl was empty. I checked the pantry. The whole bag of dog food was gone.
I climbed into bed and pretended I didn’t hear it. I pretended to sleep with my pillow wrapped around my head until I just couldn’t pretend anymore. I left four voicemails for Adriana. It must have been in the background of all of them.
First it was just barking. Then I heard the howls.