Short Story Every Little Homie Needs a Nickname
Listen, it’s okay to say you want something to stick around. It’s okay to love something.
After my foster cats Ratty and Balls abandoned me to live with my neighbor—who always fed them canned tuna, so, really, who can blame them—I adopted Brucebruce. Okay, well, abandoned might be a bit drastic and adopted might be too euphemistic.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I freed this dog when I saw him tied up to the door of China Buffet. I heard the guy screaming his name, Brucebruce, and slapping his muzzle with a rolled-up East Bay Express . He yelled, Stay , and the dog, tan and white with a muzzle covered in wiry hair, sat or stood with each blow. The dog tucked his ears back, yanked at the yellow nylon rope he was tied up with, and then—I swear—looked right at me.
I had just been dumped because my partner wanted things light. I wasn’t light. They said I was work. I was heavy. I took effort. So when I saw that dog just trying his best, just wanting to be safe, to do the right thing, it put me in some kind of mood. After I got my lemon chicken and chow mein dinner plate, I walked up to Brucebruce, who raised his ears like yes, you absolutely should . So while the owner ordered, I untied the handmade leash. The dog sprinted away feral and free across Fruitvale Avenue traffic.
I didn’t think about releasing the dog too much over the next few days because I was focused on figuring out how to teach my after-school science class for middle schoolers over Zoom. But when I told my brother during our weekly chess nights—also over Zoom—he was aghast. Like, how could I just let some animal run wild on the busy streets of East Oakland and think, in any way, that what I’d done was a good thing?
I immediately realized how selfish it was: to let something go, to assume its safety. I worried I might have put the dog in more danger despite my best intentions. That evening, I finally beat my brother for the first time in weeks, but there was no pleasure in it. It’s like even though I won, I lost.
So a few months later, when I saw Brucebruce at Josie de la Cruz Park, I stopped walking and stared in disbelief, feeling a bit to blame. He was sitting about twenty feet from the benches that various local soccer teams occupied, leaving behind them a trail of edible rubbish: discarded chicken bones, paper plates with beans and rice. I considered calling out to the dog. But what was there to say? He looked good: clean, the whites in his fur still white, ears up and eager. I had assumed the worst: mangy and matted. I walked away thinking, Good for him . He was making do like all of us.
But I walked by a few days later and saw him again in the exact same spot, meandering in little circles, head down, looking for food. It felt like a sign, a chance for confirmation or redemption or just proof that I didn’t do anything wrong. I decided to act.
Brucebruce, I called, because who can forget a name like that, and the dog strolled up to me like we were old friends.
He had this piece of rubbish hanging from his muzzle. I took off my belt to use as a temporary leash, but Brucebruce bounded backward, ears immediately retracted in distrust. I apologized and put my belt back on. He stepped to me again, ears up; the piece of whatever had fallen.
I felt like I needed to say something important or that I needed to explain myself. I said to him, Here’s the deal. I promise never to tie you up and you can leave anytime you want to, but if you stay with me, you have to . . .
I didn’t know how to finish. I cringed at the word obey . I balked at saying listen to me . Nothing felt right. The dog cocked his head.
I said, I need you to work with me. How’s that?
He said nothing, but he moved closer to me and sat. I reached out cautiously and touched his head. I could feel the coarse hair, the subtle shift in weight as the dog leaned into my hand.
We walked side by side to my backyard cottage. I had a bag of leftover kitty food and grabbed a bowl for water. I sat in my chair. Brucebruce ate and then curled up at my feet.
I made flyers with my best friend Metal Matt, who had a dog named Sabbath and so was concerned for Brucebruce’s well-being. We chose a picture of Brucebruce against a white wall, his red tongue hanging out of his mouth like he was dying of thirst, text reading: Do you know my person? ( Nothing should be owned , I thought, after first writing the word owner .)
Metal Matt knew I still hurt about being called heavy. To cheer me up, he set me up with Leila, a middle-aged divorcée looking for something loose and safe, after her child’s bedtime, and Terrance, a middle school teacher, looking for occupational commiseration while drinking beers naked on weekends. I was gleefully light with both, asking lots of questions, listening intently, texting back consistently, never needing anything too much. But each hookup just kind of petered out during the lockdown. Understandably. Leila too exhausted, Terrance too overwhelmed. So I was back to being alone.
Be careful, Metal Matt warned. Don’t get too attached like you did with your cats.
Fuck Ratty and Balls, I said.
Of course, Metal Matt said finally. Fuck them.
Brucebruce sat and watched every time I put up a flyer.
If you want to go, I said, you can go. He said nothing.
I posted flyers everywhere: around China Buffet and the park and various Landromants and liquor stores. Brucebruce strolled with me. He’d sometimes run ahead, but he stayed on the sidewalks and never ran into the streets. That’s how I discovered Donut Savant on Thirty-Eighth. I saw a line of people six feet apart lining an entire block. I started to cross the street, but Brucebruce stayed put in front of the store. He sniffed the air and so, what else could I do, I sniffed: Ah, the sweet odor of baking dough.
Nothing should be owned, I thought, after first writing the word owner.
I wanted to hate the place, but yes, their specialty, cronuts, a cross between a donut and a croissant drizzled in this perfect vanilla glaze, are divine, so yes, we began stopping by on our morning walks, and yes, we generally were first in line when it opened at nine.
A few weeks after posting flyers, Brucebruce and I stood outside on stenciled dancing donuts six feet behind a couple people, both on their phones taking orders for like a million other people. Brucebruce kept walking to the front door and then looking back at me like what are you waiting for .
I shook my head and slapped my thigh and he walked back to me. We repeated this a few times before we finally got into the store.
Hey boss, all the vanillas are gone, Javier said to me.
He knew I always ordered a vanilla cronut and a black coffee and one dog biscuit. He also knew I had a degree in botany and taught an after-school science class because I walked my four Thursday-afternoon students into the store to get cronuts as a reward for their hard work identifying ten different kinds of trees in Dimond Park. Javier teased the kids asking if they could identify which tree the elusive cronut grew on. The kids cackled.
Javier slid me a coffee and walked around the counter and said, BruceyBoy, this one’s on me.
You know his name is Brucebruce, I said.
Every little homie needs a nickname, he said. And with that he rubbed Brucebruce’s head and the dog seemed to like it.
Javier said, Try something new. The maple one is fire.
I nodded yes because the coffee felt so warm in my hands.
Boss, let me show you something from my friend’s grow.
Sure, I said.
Check this out. He showed me the leaf of a marijuana plant, curled at the edges with brown circular spots.
Mites, I said. You can use vinegar or just look up a solution to spray on it.
We did, he said. He wanted to know if it’s possible to still save them. To get a good harvest or is it best to just throw out the whole crop.
I hate to throw anything away, but if your goal is to get the best harvest, I think it’s best to start again.
He nodded. Sometimes you got to start fresh.
I smiled at Javier, at his optimism. I held a hot cup of coffee and a maple cronut while Brucebruce crunched his flour bone. Javier raised his fist, realized my hands were full, and reached out to pat me on the shoulder.
He walked back behind the counter. Why do you never have BruceyBoy on a leash?
He doesn’t like it.
You must be super kind.
Animals only respect people they know won’t hurt them.
I breathed in sharply. It’s the nicest thing someone’s said to me since before the lockdown.
At our Zoom hangout, my brother began bragging that he was ahead by eighteen games, so to distract him, I said, Look who’s still here: Brucebruce. Or you can call him BruceyBoy. He’s got a nickname
I lifted the laptop so he could see the dog, who perked up at hearing his name.
Damn, you still have him? Have you given the dog a bath yet? Taken him to the vet?
I looked at the dog. I hadn’t really considered it: a bath, the vet. It had been over a month since Brucebruce had made this place his home.
You’re a scientist, how can you consider keeping an animal without doing all of the responsible things. Look at him. Tell me, what do you see?
I looked again.
The dog barked once, telling my brother to fuck off.
I barked back and said, I see a wild animal, perfect just the way it is.
Animals only respect people they know won’t hurt them.
A bath never hurt anyone.
The next morning, I stepped into the shower and thought, Why not .
I called the dog, who came to the tub.
I reached out and he put his paws on the rim and jumped into the hot shower. I used my Head & Shoulders combo shampoo and conditioner and lathered up the dog, who looked like a fluffy sheep covered in suds.
I sat with Metal Matt at the park: Brucebruce wandered around, Sabbath growled and drooled on his leash. I slid the box of cronuts to Metal Matt. He gave me a lemon-ginger kefir beverage.
He said, Here’s to trying to be healthy and yet still breaking the rules. We each bit our cronut and then sipped the beverage.
You keeping Brucebruce?
I don’t know. Can you keep anything really?
You can keep a dog, my friend.
I guess. If he wants to stay.
That’s sweet. You clearly care for him. In fact, what happened? His coat is so clean.
We took a shower.
Metal Matt laughed. Listen, it’s okay to say you want something to stick around. It’s okay to love something.
I looked at Brucebruce, off leash and twenty feet away, sniffing the rubbish can and then licking the sidewalk coated with liquid oozing from it.
Metal Matt reached out his hand.
I reached out mine.
We touched, and I couldn’t remember the last time I just held hands with someone. It felt so natural and easy. It took no effort at all.
I held on. And so did he. And my dog licked the ground. And a couple walked by wearing masks talking about vaccines. And Sabbath growled. And there was a new president but, more importantly, vice president. And—yes, yes—mainstream politics, so blah but damn the world suddenly felt healthy and safe and, if only for that moment, so damn beautiful.