Mary holds back a gag. The humidity isn’t helping matters, turning the air a lovely Parfum de Poo. A man walks by with his white and gold pit bull, puckering his mouth in fake pity as Jack and Jill yip and wrap around Mary like she’s a maypole. Mary pulls the leashes short, and the dogs strain and wheeze while she struggles to tie a knot in the Kroger bag. She hadn’t planned to still be shoveling dog shit two months after graduating from Emory. Her list of dream jobs after graduating Summa Cum Laude from a prestigious college had not included caring for pampered pooches.
Walking pets through frenetic Atlanta streets can pose a challenge, so it’s a relief the dogs’ owner lives near Centennial Park. Jack and Jill roll down the hill to pirouette through water sprays in the kid’s fountain at the bottom. She wishes she could do the same, but she’s due back at the office soon. Walking dogs during her lunch hour works out well most days, but a few times her boss has brought the holy wrath of God upon her for rushing in 10 minutes late. They run a tight ship in her internship program, so tight she fears the sails may bunch and drown her.
As Mary reaches Peachtree Street, Jack yanks her toward an overflowing alley dumpster. As if reeling in a big mouth bass, Mary begins to bring him to heel when she realizes he’s gnawing on something. She wrenches her right hand into his salivating mouth and realizes the object’s texture is squishy, fleshy.
“God, did you find a damn squirrel?”
Both dogs have a habit of foraging and resisting handing over their bounty. Stomping her Sperry’s onto the pair’s leashes, she pries apart Jack’s jaws. Her blood turns arctic.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
It’s a thumb. Brown and curling, like a pork rind. Dark hairy tendrils intertwine around it. Bone sticks out of the skin casing, but there’s no oozing. Mary reels back. She has just enough presence of mind to manhandle the finger out of Jack’s mouth with a stick she finds near the dumpster. Gritting her teeth to the point of forming a headache, she picks up the thumb with a clean Kroger bag and places it out of the dog’s reach. In a way, it’s the first hand she has held in a long time.
Blood, guts, and gore of any kind hasn’t ever sat well with Mary. Her dad was a cop, and he brought work home way too much. Mom used to turn into fury incarnate when one of her children stumbled onto his crime photo collection, a dizzying array of death and destruction. A thumb isn’t the worst Mary’s seen, but it’s the first she’s seen up close.
Her breathing thins, the first sign of an impending panic attack. Mary slides her back against the brick wall of the alley until she hits the ground, trying to slow down the world. She puts her head in her hands and rocks. Her brain buzzes like a bug zapper on a Mississippi porch. It’s all swirling anger, incompetence, and internalized failure. Why does this weird crap always happen to me? Clearly, my life is circling the drain if severed thumbs start entering into the equation. Mary reaches for Jill and rubs the dog’s chest as though Jill’s the one who needs soothing. The circles remind her of the never-ending cycle she herself resides in. Small victories, small rewards, then disappointment and hopelessness, followed by one too many Irish coffees before liquid courage fuels her on. So it goes.
“Miss, are you alright?”
Some brunette stares down at her. Mary doesn’t know how long she’s been on the ground.
“The dog. He found a thumb,” she manages.
The woman shakes her head. “A thumb?”
The brunette pulls an iPhone out of her quilted bag and pokes at the screen.
When the cops arrive, a young female officer takes the brunette aside and records her statement.
“Ma’am, we are going to have to ask you to come with us to the station. Normally, we could do this here, but since the dogs got into the evidence, we need a vet to induce vomiting so we run tests,” The other cop, a Barney Fife look-alike, says to Mary.
“I can’t. I have to get back to work. My boss is going to kill me.” Mary’s heart grumbles, something akin to heartburn, heartbreak, or indigestion. This selfishness isn’t like her, but work is work.
Deadpanned and thin-lipped, the cop scans the crime scene. “It’s possible that someone actually died. I’m sure your boss will understand.”
“You don’t know my boss.”
There it is again, an unusual selfishness. Somebody’s out there sans thumb and suffering who knows what other injuries, but all Mary can picture is Sara’s face reddening with frustration with her inadequacy and uselessness.
“I know this is shocking, ma’am, but it will be over soon. Let’s get your statement and the samples so you can be on your way.”
The cop lets Mary hurry to the dog owner’s apartment and scrawl a note on ticket tape:
Hey, Mrs. T,
This is weird. I don’t have time to explain. The dogs are FINE. They are safe and with me. Call me when you get this.
Fife leads her like a child to the squad car. The female officer takes the passenger seat.
Mary lifts the wiggling wonders onto the seat beside her. They promptly lay down, the first calm moment she’s had with them. Fife and the female officer spout police jargon to dispatch. Mary reaches into her pocket for her phone and dials her boss.
Sara picks up in two rings. “Where the hell are you? You are thirty minutes late.”
Mary tries her best to explain.
“A thumb? You really expect me to believe that bullshit?”
“I can get a cop on the phone right now. They will tell you.”
Sara huffs. “Yeah, sure. I’ll speak to your cop.”
Mary vies weakly for attention. “Excuse me, officers? Can you please tell my boss that I’m not blowing off work.”
The female cop takes the phone, tells Sara what’s what, and then returns the phone to Mary.
“We need you focused,. This can’t happen again,” Sara says.
I’m so sorry that some poor person losing their finger and possibly their life is so inconvenient for you. But, Mary’s actual response proves less noble. “You’re so right. It won’t happen again.”
Fife’s eyes appear sympathetic to Mary as he looks at her in the rearview.
They get to the vet’s office, a red brick building with a giant Saint Bernard statue guarding the entrance. Fife holds the door open, and Mary leads the dogs through the foyer. Jill makes a puddle on the floor that splashes across the porcelain tile like the Fountains of Bellagio.
As the vet does a cursory exam of the animals to make sure they are unharmed, Fife asks Mary general questions about the course of events. She recounts everything that happened as best as she can, turning red from fears of investigation interference.
The vet instructs Mary to calm the pups as she probes into their tiny throats so they will cough up the goods. It seems unfair that Jill must go through this, too, but they can’t be 100 percent sure that she didn’t come into contact with evidence. A vet tech scoops each dog’s mess off the metallic tabletop. All Mary recognizes is the dogs’ lamb and rice kibble. Satisfied that she has nothing else to offer, Fife drops Mary off at Mrs. T’s building, so she can take the dogs home.
Sara barely looks up from her laptop as Mary rushes in. Mary decides against talking to her and about-faces to her corner of this universe, the intern desks. Her fellow interns grimace at her in sympathy that feels as real as Dolly Parton’s boobs. She can’t blame them. They all want that job at summer’s end.
Mary grinds through the work day, editing press releases for upcoming events and projects. It’s a tech start-up, very cool for tech nerds like her. In theory, she is with her kind, creating and innovating, except all that glitters in the sun but ends up seeming cheap.
Officially, there are seven wonders of the world, but for Mary, there is an eighth: The discovery that a person can spend every day surrounded by people and still feel alone. The internship had seemed like a dream come true, but instead of the floating contentment she had imagined, loneliness looms dark as a tornado. She wonders if the storm will take her, erase her as though she never was if she doesn’t somehow put roots down.
When she returns home to her apartment, Mary commences her decompressing rituals. She digs in the fridge for her bag of sweet potatoes that were on sale at Aldi for 78 cents/lb, and then grabs a chef’s knife and chops the hell out of them. Mary grew up watching her mother toss ingredients into pots with reckless abandon, with no regard for measuring cups or scales. Her mother still eats a horrendous amount of potatoes, although now, having lived and loved in Georgia for the latter half of her life, she also enjoys fried okra, mac and cheese, peach cobbler, and salads.
Mary chops in remembrance of the simple. The love of her life, Snoopy the Dachshund, hops around her feet. They play as the potatoes simmer, painting their world with fragrances of honey and lemon pepper. The timer dings, and Mary scrapes her haul onto a plate. She digs into the dark crevices of the fridge for her box of merlot and pours a hefty glass. She hasn’t realized until now how badly she needs to pee, so she hastily covers up the pile and rushes off to the restroom.
When she comes back, she finds that Snoopy has knocked the whole meal onto the floor, though mercifully not the wine. She can’t even get mad. There are no emotions left. She microwaves some non-descript Lean Cuisine, while her best friend eats her dinner. She hugs him as if he might run away. It’s just another day in the gig economy as she holds on and dreads tomorrow’s wake-up alarm.