I tell Miss Johnson’s head-like-a-space-alien chihuahua that she’s sweeter than cotton candy. Glancing at my clipboard, I realize the flattery was meant for Mr. Smith’s Irish setter. Whoops. Luckily, the two gone but not forgotten pets reside in the same freeze dryer, a five-foot-by-two-foot metal box resembling an oversized washing machine. I apologize for my mistake then deliver the correct message to the correct pooch.
To make sure they can hear me over the humming engines, I stand only a few inches from the circular plastic window splitting their frozen world from my movable one. I don’t like classifying things as living or dead. Experiences make up life, right? Doesn’t everything, inanimate or not, have experiences? When I head out the door each morning, my house doesn’t disappear. Dust still collects on the furniture. Light still shines through the windows. And just because my belongings can’t get up and communicate this doesn’t mean these things didn’t happen.
This same logic applies to all the animals inside the freeze dryers. To their owners, they’ll inhabit a space in-between. To their owners, the animals are as movable as they let the past make them.
“Be seeing you soon, darling,” I say to Mr. Moore’s rainbow calico, continuing my rounds.
The best part of this job is talking to the animals. Whenever business slows and there’s nothing to do, I roll my chair back here and just talk. We discuss everything from politics to what movies to go see. However, one subject we always seem to touch on is my love life. Of course, the animals don’t really speak. There aren’t any barks or meows. But what’s the harm in pretending?
Ruff, it’s time to move on, to find love again. What about the cashier at the grocery store? She was definitely flirting with you. You should ask her out.
Purr, darling, don’t take advice from a dog. A dog’s love is suffocating and needy. Cat’s love themselves first then dish out whatever’s left.
Ruff, how can you love yourself without knowing love? Love doesn’t bend to your convenience, doesn’t wait around until you get bored or lonely.
Purr, oh what do you know?
Ruff, I know he’s starved for someone to pet him and say good boy.
The alarm on the freeze dryer behind me buzzes. I turn around, and Mrs. Miller’s pug, a compressed creature with a body like an accordion and a face like a fighter who’s taken one too many punches, greets me. With my index finger, I tap the thermometer built into the unit. The red arrow slightly fluctuates before stopping at 10 degrees.
“Looks like you’re ready to come out.”
Mrs. Miller’s pug, wires and rods jutting from his paws and chin, positioning him in a pose his owner remembered fondly, stares at me with glass puppy dog eyes. His expression, stuck forever as wanting and dependent, reminds me of an infant squeezing his mother’s finger, so I try not to look directly at him for too long.
I open the freeze dryer. Stale, chilled air blows against my skin, sending goosebumps down my arms. The smell of beef jerky wafts up my nose, a common odor due to all the moisture being sucked out of the animals’ cells, preventing pesky decay. I grab the polished block of mahogany Mrs. Miller’s pug sits on and lift him out of the machine. Then I carry him to the stainless-steel table in the center of the room.
Pressing on his flesh, checking for any give, for firmness, like a shopper examining the ripeness of a piece of fruit, I get the sudden urge to stroke his fur.
Three months have passed since Betty left, but I still go around the corner to make sure she’s not waiting there, hoping to catch me getting too attached. In the clear, I return to Mrs. Miller’s pug and scratch behind his stubby ears and run my hands across his coarse hair. I’m supposed to call his owner, supposed to say goodbye, but, like an addict needing a fix, I can’t help myself and keep caressing his apricot coat.
Soon I notice my hands aren’t awake. They’re hidden in my pants pockets. Instead, a phantom limb does the work of promising me there’s nothing wrong with a minute or two of affection.
A minute or two transforms into weeks where, along with my other duties of taking orders and preparing animals for preservation (removing their organs, injecting them with small amounts of embalming fluid, arranging their positions), I care for Mrs. Miller’s pug, which I’ve renamed Bread. I don’t know his real name, another leftover rule from Betty’s days, but his shape and color resemble a sack of squished bread so much I couldn’t resist handing out the moniker.
He needs me. And until the world forces me to start moving again, I’ll continue to take him on window-less drives. I’ll continue to pour him bowls of kibble. I’ll continue to whisper my stolen memories into his ears.
With Bread buckled into the passenger seat of my car, I turn onto the final street to Taxidermy Memories (the name of my business). My cell phone vibrates. I recognize the number. She’s been repeatedly calling for days. I let the call go to voicemail. Then I pull into my building’s gravel parking lot, type in my password, and listen.
“This is Catherine Miller again,” Mrs. Miller says, her voice sounding like a mother demanding her child put a toy back on the shelf. “Since you won’t return my calls about my pug’s status, I’m coming in this afternoon.”
I unbuckle Bread and hold him between my palms.
“Want to run away with me, boy?” I say. “Want to become a speck on the horizon?”
I know I won’t go through with the escape plan formulating in my mind. How can I steal something so loved by someone else? I can’t.
I lower my seat and set Bread on my chest. Maybe Betty is right. I close my eyes and imagine where she might be and what she might be doing. She’s cooking breakfast for tiny fingers. She’s folding tiny clothes. She’s kissing tiny brows.
Good for her.
I lie like this, Betty curating the miniature museum inside me, a museum missing any paternal history, until my wristwatch beeps 9 o’clock and it’s time to open.
A white sheet covers Bread, a standard practice to prevent customers from becoming too overwhelmed right when they walk into the shop. When Mrs. Miller stops by, I’ll whip the sheet off like a magician making grief disappear.
A month ago, I went to the animal shelter in town with the hopes of adopting as many dogs and cats as they’d let me. The nice middle-aged woman who runs the place escorted me to the back where they kept all the animals in kennels. I lied and said I owned a huge farm where the dogs could live leash-less lives and the cats could hunt mice and nap all day. Smiling, she retrieved a Cocker Spaniel. The dog sprinted toward me, but when he licked my hand, all I saw was Betty’s tongue flicking out of Betty’s face. I flinched. The nice woman then asked if I’d rather see a cat. I thanked her, said no, and drove home.
While I wait for Mrs. Miller, I don’t think. I petrify my muscles and let my eyes glaze. I want to slip into the stillness, Bread’s plane, a plane where I could foster him, a plane where Mrs. Miller would zoom by and forget about us. A vast immobility fills me, and I’m locked in place as if I’m an artist’s rendering of my former self.
Then my arm itches, and, unfortunately, I’m shoved back into the empty bustle.
The bells tied to the lobby’s doorknob jingle. Mrs. Miller, a petite woman with dark smudges under her eyes like she hasn’t slept in days, stumbles inside, half a dozen grunting pugs yanking her forward.
I wander around my desk and meet her near the entrance. Her pugs growl at me. They’re her pig-faced bodyguards.
“Where is he?” Mrs. Miller says.
I point at the counter where the sheet conceals Bread like a child imitating a ghost. I glance at Mrs. Miller, not saying anything. Then her pugs start nipping at each other, snapping us back to why they’re here. With Mrs. Miller tugging on leashes, separating the bickering pugs, I show them to their lost brother.
I jerk the sheet off Bread. Mrs. Miller looks at him as if she’s studying a missing persons’ poster. Then she falls to her knees and wails, her tears as thick as paint.
Bread’s gone. Actually, Bread never was. I’m in my back office gripping a handle belonging to a filing cabinet. Again, I try to imagine where Betty is and what she’s doing, but all I can visualize is her stirrup-hiked legs birthing a pile of bloody rocks.
Ruff, it wasn’t your fault. What happened is no one’s fault. What’s in that drawer doesn’t love you. It can’t love you.
Purr, please listen to the dog.
The animals are wrong. I’m not starved for love. I’m starved to love.
I open the drawer and gaze at the reason why Betty left. Then I scoop up the leathery, freeze-dried body and sing my tiny preserved memory a lullaby.
WILL MUSGROVE is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ghost Parachute, Flora Fiction, 5×5 Literary Magazine, Rabid Oak, The Daily Drunk, Barstow & Grand, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @Will_Musgrove.