Humans should never have come to Florida, but their biggest mistake of all was Zoo City.
Only Dale and I know how our mother went south on Franklin that day, turned left at the taco shop, and laughed like a crow when she realized it was that easy to vanish. Dale and I know because we were walking through the mini-mall and we saw her shoes and then we saw her just as a parking lot captured her shadow. Everyone was skipping school because there’d been a bomb threat on the phone.
I was thinking of school, and how school was full of all sorts of things nobody used. I had an idea.
We’ll pawn an overhead projector, I said.
Dale looked at a corner of his hot dog. Those things are heavy, he said.
But they have wheels. I mean we would take the whole cart, wheel it out the door, pawn it. It’ll be easy to fake a hall pass.
Dale looked at me. When he looks at me like that, it means we can stop talking because words don’t need our voices anymore.
Mrs. Perot always left her classroom alone when she went to the lounge to eat bologna. I knew this because a Hostess cupcake takes no time to eat and every day I got back to the room before anybody else. I used the time to draw lines in my notebook and look out the window at the top of the dollar store, where there was a dirty pond and several crows hopping around and screaming. God made humans to make the world ugly and old. And there were palm trees in the parking lot but with practically dead tops, like old heads bowing over a grave. It had been two days and Momma had not come home. I drew a crow by closing my eyes and remembering the dollar store.
I drew myself a hall pass, and then I walked out the door of Mrs. Perot’s classroom and in the hallway nobody stopped me to ask where I was going. The secret is to walk like you have Mrs. Perot’s bologna that she asked you to bring to her in the lounge. I wheeled Mrs. Perot’s projector to the stairs. Dale was there in a corner the doors make with the stairwell, a place we know well because it’s the best place to hide if you hear someone coming up the stairs while you’re trying to get down to the parking lot. He was there, clipped the single metal tether holding onto the projector, and put a blanket over the thing. We lifted it off the cart and got outside.
Through the parking lot, past the cars, into a kind of ditch on the other side, a ravine where there were scraggly trees and kudzu and mosquitoes. It was the last day before Christmas break only nobody said Christmas anymore; I reminded Dale, just winter. And there wasn’t even winter in Zoo City, at least not the kind with snow or cold or anything different at all from any other time.
While we were getting into the ravine, I remembered something. I remembered my notebook in my desk in Mrs. Perot’s class. And in my notebook were all of my drawings and most of my thoughts.
I said I left some stuff in my desk, I’d go back and get it and then we could go to the pawnshop.
This thing says Southbrook on the side, Dale said. He tapped an edge of the projector.
We’ll paint it, I said. Or maybe they won’t even mind at the pawnshop. People in Zoo City don’t mind about most things as long as they’re not trying to be fancy.
While I was walking through the parking lot, I knew already that Dale wouldn’t be there when I got back. He would leave and let me deal with what we had begun together. That was his way. Begin a thing with you and then leave you to solo your way out of the middle of it. I could tell he would be gone because he had already backed away inside his eyes and was seeing the future and where he would be. And it was a future I couldn’t see, though I had a few guesses about where I would find him, because there aren’t that many places to go to in Zoo City, and Dale didn’t have the kind of friends who left or even knew it was possible to leave.
The year before, I’d come home from school holding the yearbook and I showed Dale how I had been voted Most Likely to Succeed and Dale laughed and laughed and said they were playing with me, they were having fun at my expense, and I said I thought he was being mean and he tried to stop laughing but couldn’t and finally he said, Not long as you’re in Zoo City, meaning I guess that there is no way here that leads to success, no path or road or avenue or even a secret alleyway, and I suppose Dale thought he knew this because he himself was looking for it and still had not found it, though for a while he hoped the door behind the washer in the laundromat would lead somewhere good, but when he finally got the lock picked, it turned out to be just a closet full of old burst bottles of detergent seeping on the floor, and mouse droppings. And one enormous mouse that could barely move that had become fat lapping up the sloshed detergent.
There was no brook by Southbrook. And the school was east of the city, south of nothing but a swamp. And the ravine led to the swamp, and I sat down in the ravine with my notebook and the projector wondering what to do now that Dale had abandoned me, as I knew he would, because Dale was as habitual as Momma was not, when I heard something coming up behind me.
Well, I thought, time for detention.
But it was a black dog and not the hall monitor sent out to get me.
And it was a big black dog.
And I recognized the dog, but the feeling lasted only for a second—I thought it was my dad’s dog Jupiter because it was the same shape and size and color, but then it cocked its head to one side and I realized it wasn’t Jupiter. It was like Jupiter, but reversed, like I was seeing Jupiter in a mirror. It wasn’t wearing a collar and had a look like it might have been living outside for a while. There were pieces of leaves in its fur and its paws were dusty and it looked like no people had tried to clean it for some time. And it looked lonely.
Hey, I said to it. It turned its head to look at me straight on. I wondered what it could see of me, because sometimes when a dog looks at me I feel like it’s seeing parts of me that I can’t see, like I have a funnel-shaped shadow growing off one shoulder, or something wrapped around my head, or a ghost standing behind me about to lay its shadowy hands on my neck. I put my hands on my head and touched around my hair like I was picking cotton balls out of it. Then I put my hands down, embarrassed, and the dog thought this gesture, the lowering of my hands, meant something, and it barked at me. And in this way it was like Jupiter—my dad did this thing where he would pretend to pluck a treat out of his ear, or from the air above his head, or from behind Jupiter’s ear, and the dog got used to this and whenever she saw me touch my head she would bark, thinking I had pulled a treat out of my ear for her.
Are you Jupiter?
Sorry, I don’t have a treat for you.
I was thinking about the projector. If I could pawn it then I could buy treats for Jupiter. And I would go grocery shopping for myself and Dale because we needed noodles and milk and once Momma had been gone for two days, there was no telling how much longer she would be gone. I would buy cheese and potatoes and bread and peanut butter and strawberry jam too, and . . . I was hungry. I couldn’t carry the projector by myself. I felt stuck, and when I feel stuck, I get angry at all the people who aren’t there helping me, which was everybody. I hated everybody.
I looked around at the ravine. I looked at the dog and the dog looked hard at me. The dog kept looking at me. And there’s something about being looked at like that, so hard it’s like you’re being buried inside the face of another creature—it snapped me out of myself and my pity. Nobody wanted a projector. I didn’t want a projector. I gave it a kick, and the dog started to spin around and it squatted and it took a big shit right next to the projector. And that seemed to decide something about everything, and I walked toward home.
I felt stuck, and when I feel stuck, I get angry at all the people who aren’t there helping me, which was everybody.
And the dog followed me. She stayed behind my feet and I felt like I had a living shadow. As if my shadow had decided to become its own being and that being was a dog that looked a lot like Jupiter, but wasn’t. Jupiter was a he, and was getting gray hairs, and this dog looked young as almost a puppy, and it was easy to see that she was a she. I tried to walk in a way that would signal to her I didn’t care that she was there, because I thought a dog would only add to the trouble of Momma being gone and there being no food and me being so hungry. I didn’t want to have to feed her something I wanted to eat. And I knew I would have to if she followed me all the way home and into the house, because once a living creature is in the house, it means something. I mean it means a certain responsibility. I was seventeen, and I knew enough to know to avoid responsibility, to try to scare it off before it came in the door with me.
When I got to my block, I stopped and turned and the dog stopped and sat on the sidewalk. She looked at me, wagging her tail, swishing leaves and ants away, and this reminded me of the man who lived for a while in our neighborhood who refused to kill any living thing. When he went anywhere—he only ever walked—he carried a broom made of feathers that he used to clear ants from his path. Step brush brush. Step brush brush. Everybody thought he was nuts, but I liked to watch the care, almost tenderness, in the way he used the broom. It was like he was always saying, Love, love, love. That I liked to watch him and think of love is something I would never tell Dale or anybody, because they would laugh at me the way Dale laughs at me when I show him my drawings. Because most people do not think of love or care if they crush small things.
Shoo, I said to the dog, which, when I said it, I felt ridiculous. Shoo is what you say to a fly, and even then it is a silly thing to say. Scram, go, go home, I said. She looked at me and her tail was wagging. I don’t even have a leash, I said. I don’t have a bowl for you, or food. There’s nowhere for you to sleep. Nobody here can care for you. There are probably people who are looking for you. And when Momma comes home . . .
She was looking at me and her tail was wagging and I could hear my own voice and in my own voice I heard how unlikely it was, about Momma coming home. Not anytime soon, anyway, and then not for long.
Okay, I said, okay. And we turned onto my street. And I saw Dale coming up the street with two bags of groceries—I didn’t want to wonder just then how he’d got them, so I didn’t—and he saw me and he saw the dog and he shook his head, a little sadly, and didn’t laugh, and then did laugh. I waited for what I knew would relent in me to relent. And finally, it was like a grip released. And we all went into the kitchen.