Fleas were the part of her job she hated. But Mary accepted the fleas, as she accepted many things nowadays, with a shrug: A necessary evil, what could be done about it? Fleas occupied the fur on so many of the dogs she groomed, the fat, lazy dogs of clients who paid extra for bows, extra for bells and silk ribbons. Cheap trinkets.
Mary knew that the really wealthy pet owners took their dogs to the Kennel Spa down the street. At the spa, they paid hundreds of dollars so their canine children could sit in a sauna or get a massage.
"Stupid," Mary's mother said whenever the subject came up. "What dog needs a facial? I need a facial."
"They don't do facials, Mom," Mary told her a hundred times. "It's a mineral pack, makes the coat shiny." But her mother wouldn't listen.
"Kennel Spa," she said. "It's a stupid idea, but it makes money. You should work there. Nobody goes for just grooming any more."
"Our clients do," Mary said. "Not everybody has a million dollars in the bank, Mom."
"We sure don't," her mother said. She always complained at the breakfast table. "Your dogs have got fleas. Why? I don't think Kennel Spa dogs have fleas." She poured Mary's coffee.
"Dogs with fleas. It's a shame."
Over the past three years Mary's mother had become the background noise to her life, a steady cadence like the radio. Mary dressed by it, brushed her hair by it, said goodbye and caught the bus from Phoenix to Scottsdale.
Brenda was already there. She opened the shop every morning, because she owned it. She had worked here all her life, and she inherited the shop when her mother died.
No matter how early Mary arrived Brenda was there, wearing a frosted wig and several pieces of turquoise jewelry, blue jeans and a ratty T-shirt. Brenda always started the day wearing mules or sandals, and ended up working barefoot. Mary wondered how she could stand the feel of animal hair sticking to her feet, but Brenda never noticed.
Mary thought about the fleas while she combed the silky coat of a Pomeranian notorious for his sharp little dangerous teeth. She had his mouth strapped shut with a muzzle and she worked steadily until the dog dropped a turd on the white Formica table.
"Bad!" Then Mary put her hands on either side of him and spoke firmly, and he snarled up at her through the muzzle.
"Yeah, I know," she told the Pomeranian. "You'll kill me as soon as you get the chance, right?"
She had never struck a dog, but she had seen Brenda lose her temper and give a little one-finger thump to the noses of dogs that gave her trouble. Brenda always had trouble with the Schnauzers. She said they reminded her too much of her ex-husband.
Mary finished brushing the Pomeranian and returned him to his cage. Then she prepared to shampoo and blow-dry a poodle whose name she could never pronounce, so she called him Foo-Foo. That's when she noticed the flea on her arm. It jumped and tumbled on her skin. She slapped it away. But she kept thinking about it: the thin line between the dogs and herself, and how the fleas seemed happy with both.
Fleas came with the job, although Mary and Brenda took pains to introduce their new clients to a reliable topical treatment. Some clients were grateful and some were not, like the over-exercised Barth woman, the one who wore real furs and fake jewelry. Mary's husband had once given her a jacket made of rabbit fur, but she never wore it because people gave her dirty looks. She never wore jewelry either, but she could tell at a glance the big baubles on Mrs. Barth were cheap imitation.
Mrs. Barth's Chihuahua was named James but she called him Jimmy, and she strapped him into a custom-made car seat and took him wherever she went. In his brightly decorated car seat, Jimmy sat quietly watching traffic, like an emaciated baby.
The smell was part of the job, too: a wet, beauty shop aroma. Soap couldn't touch it. Worse, it was a dog hair smell. Mary's mother complained about it, and they sprayed the house every day with a spring bouquet room freshener, but it came back. Not at once but gradually. It lingered between the couch cushions until someone sat down and—whoosh—the dog hair smell would come up and surround the surprised guest like an invisible cloud.
"If that Jimmy squirms around when I clip his claws today, I'm gonna chop his tail off and tell Mrs. Barth one of the dogs bit it," Brenda said over coffee, stacking her feet one on top of the other on the rim of a wastebasket and leaning back in her chair. Then she laughed at herself.
"I need a vacation," she said.
It was the Christmas season. In Phoenix, that meant Styrofoam Santas wearing sombreros perched merrily on the streetlights, and the temperature dropping to fifty-five degrees. The weather was perfect for shopping. Tourist season was in full swing. On the freeway people drove like demons looking for an exit from hell.
When the last client picked up the last dog at the end of the day, Brenda let out a sigh of hallelujah and flipped over the "Closed" sign on the front door.
Brenda and Mary sat in the cramped waiting area, watching traffic and sipping a final cup of coffee.
"I told you and told you, he's all right," Brenda said. "Why would I set you up a date with a rapist or a psycho or something?"
"Why did you set me up at all?" Mary asked. "I don't need a date. I'm happy."
"In a five-room house, with nobody except your mother?" Brenda made a face. "Is that all you want for yourself?"
Mary didn't like to talk about her future. Life was hard enough when all she did was go day by day. It wasn't always so. During the years of her marriage to Johnny, Mary thought about the future all the time. She had plans, but she couldn't explain them, especially to her husband. He was only interested in what Mary wore and how she looked in it.
"What do you want?" Brenda asked.
"I don't know," Mary said. "But I don't want another husband telling me what to do, and how to do this and that and everything."
"Then dumping you for a younger woman," Brenda reminded her. This was the real dividing line between the two women. Brenda never treated Mary like an employee, more like a partner. They split the clients and tips. But Mary's husband had left her in the middle of the night after he fell in love with a 21-year-old cashier at their neighborhood 7-Eleven, while Brenda had the good sense to throw her husband out of the house for gambling. It was a difference that gave Brenda free rein to offer unsolicited advice.
"You should've taken his .38 down to that motel and shot both of them in the butt," she told Mary at least once a week. "Then you'd feel better about it."
"Yeah, yeah," Mary said. "Good riddance, okay?"
"Fine, okay," said Brenda. She scratched her leg. "I hate the winter, man, I get this dry skin."
Brenda turned her attention back to the traffic beyond the shop window.
"Anyway, he thinks he's picking you up at eight o'clock. So just meet him at the door and say you've got the flu or you hate men or whatever," she said.
First thing when she got home, Mary took a warm bath. In the tub she ran through the scene in her mind, how it would look and sound if her mother said to this guy Brenda had set her up with:
"No, my daughter isn't well. She grooms dogs and one of the dogs bit her so she can't go out with you. Sorry."
It was ridiculous, and guaranteed to make both her mother and the guy feel stupid. There was no way out. She had to go.
At eight o'clock Mary sat in the living room under the smiles of three saints framed in gold. She was bathed in light from the miniature Christmas tree and surrounded by the smell of dog hair. She wore the only dress she owned that could be called nondescript—a brown cotton shift with a tan Peter Pan collar and sleeves that were added on by her mother to turn a spring outfit into winter.
At eight-ten Mary turned off the Christmas lights and decided to go to bed. The doorbell rang.
She told herself she had not anticipated anything. She had, in fact, made a firm resolution not to expect one single thing. It was a habit that kept her fear low to the ground and manageable. But when she opened the door and saw her date she felt her jaw muscles tighten.
He wore a brown suit—the same shade of brown Mary was wearing. The carnation in his lapel was already wilting. She noticed it was an unnatural yellow, probably over-dyed.
Otherwise, he was the most handsome man she had ever seen. At least, he had the most handsome head she had ever seen. A romantic, poetic head with large, dark eyes and thick, black hair and a lower lip that made her own lips move involuntarily as if she had something on the tip of her tongue. A gorgeous, glamorous head—attached to a square solid frame with a beer belly. He looked to be about 5' 3", which was a good three inches shorter than Mary.
She tried to shake the idea, but there was no doubt in her mind: He had a body that wanted to be under someone else's head. A bald butcher's head.
"Hello. You must be Mary," he said, and his voice was so deep and artificial it seemed to be traveling through a giant megaphone to Mary's ears. She imagined him practicing his deep voice in front of a mirror.
"Hello," she said. "Do you have a car?"
She would go. She would go with him and call it a date. Fine. She could do that, but she would not invite him in and let him judge her and her mother because they lived in a house that reeked of dog hair. He was okay; but he wasn't perfect, and she wouldn't stand for any judgment. She made up her mind. She didn't want to know his opinion of her.
"My name is John, you can call me Johnny," he said as soon as they were seated in his weather-beaten Plymouth Fury.
"Thanks. Okay," Mary said. She stared out the window at the night full of palm trees and wondered if she would end the evening by screaming out loud. She knew Brenda wasn't malicious enough to set her up on purpose with a guy named Johnny, so she figured Brenda didn't know him as well as she pretended.
"My ex-husband was named Johnny," Mary said flatly. "Do you have another nickname?"
"Oh," he said. "Not really. Sorry about that."
They cruised along in silence for a while. Then Johnny took another stab at conversation.
"Brenda tells me you two work together," he said, stopping at a light.
On the corner a grizzled old man was fighting with a bulldog for a scrap of what appeared to be carpet. The light changed before Mary answered.
"We groom dogs," she said.
"Hey, that must be interesting." Johnny replied. His eyes were fixed on the old man and bulldog in the rear view mirror.
"Why?" Mary asked.
"Oh, I don't know," he said. "I thought, you know, you probably learn a lot about people--uh, people with dogs."
Mary stared out the window.
"See, I work at the zoo," he explained. "You'd be surprised how much you can learn about an individual from the animal he spends the most time watching."
"At the zoo?" Mary pictured this dark-haired beer-bellied man shoveling scat out of wire cages.
"Yeah. Like--the people who are attracted to the big cats? Usually middle-aged men starting to put on weight. They like the tigers, the leopards."
"Chubby men like big cats?" Mary asked. She tried not to look at his belly.
"And the fat women, they always go for the exotic birds," Johnny said as they came to a stop at a Sonic Drive-In.
"Birds, huh?" Mary said. "How about that."
They studied the menu for a minute and then Johnny asked what she wanted.
"Oh, I don't know," said Mary. "A milkshake—no, wait, a diet soda. And French fries."
Johnny ordered for both of them and if he gave the waitress the once-over, Mary didn't catch him at it. The skinny high school girl in a tight uniform had taken a good leisurely look at Johnny, though. Mary thought it was only natural. Judging by his head and shoulders, he was quite a catch. Then a mean thought crossed her mind.
"Do you eat at the drive-in a lot?" she asked.
"Not really," he said. "Why?"
"Just curious," Mary said. Now she was sorry she'd thought of him taking all his meals in his car, so he wouldn't have to stand up and reveal his body.
"So every person likes a different animal, huh?" She tried to sound interested.
"Yeah," he said. "It's pretty funny to watch. They don't even know it."
"I don't like dogs," Mary told him.
The night sky was etched with clouds.
"I brush their hair and give them a bath because somebody pays me to do it," she said.
"What kind of animals do you like?"
"None," Mary said honestly. "I don't like animals very much."
"So, how did you decide on a job like that?" Johnny asked.
"I knew Brenda for a long time. I needed a job, and she taught me." She didn't want to talk about dogs and she didn't want to talk about herself.
Across the street a man and woman were walking toward a gas station. The man followed the woman, reaching his hand out to try and touch her. The woman pushed his hand back, but she didn't run away.
"Brenda hates dogs," Johnny said. "She likes reptiles." He laughed. "They don't have to be groomed."
Mary had to laugh, thinking of Brenda trying to unsnarl the nappy curls on a terrier's back. First the dog would bare its teeth and growl. Then Brenda would bare her teeth and growl, then the dog, then Brenda.
"But most women don't like the snakes and lizards," Johnny said. "They like the animals with fur. Something about it."
"Yeah, they probably imagine themselves wearing it," Mary said.
Johnny seemed confused by this. He took the tray from the girl in the Sonic uniform, and handed Mary her soda and fries. He ate his cheeseburger and onion rings like a starving man, without stopping to talk.
Halfway through her fries, Mary noticed the familiar tingling sensation on her forearm. Anyone else might have mistaken it for a stray hair, or a grain of salt. Instantly, Mary recognized the minute crawling of a flea on her skin. She turned and brushed it off quickly before Johnny knew something was up.
They heard raised voices outside. The man and woman across the street were shouting at one another.
"Want to see something?" Johnny asked. The expectant smile made him seem naïve for a moment.
"What is it?" Mary didn't want to see anything. But Johnny was reaching around the seat, fumbling with paper and boxes on the floor behind him. He found a hand-sized gold box and offered it to Mary.
"Open it," he said.
Mary accepted the box, unable to refuse with a mouthful of French fries. She nodded thanks and opened the gold box. Inside she found a piece of what seemed to be fur—only a scrap, but it was black and glossy like mink. She ran her hand over it several times until it lost its coolness and began to take on the warmth of her fingers.
When she looked up, Johnny was watching her. Their eyes met for a second, just a flicker, but her face flushed red. The car seemed to close in on her. The dark, the night, kept her there, trapped with him. She was excited, and infuriated by the knowledge that she couldn't leave. It was too far to walk home, now. She was stuck with him.
"What is this?" Mary asked, holding up the scrap of dark fur.
"It's from one of the black bears. He died a few months ago. Beautiful, isn't it?" He was staring at her, making her blush more deeply.
"It's a pretty color," she said. "What's it for? Small piece like this, you couldn't even make a collar out of it."
As soon as she said it she felt sorry. Johnny looked at the fur, then at Mary.
"I'm really tired tonight for some reason," she said. She closed the box and handed it back to Johnny. Reluctantly, he returned it to the floor behind his seat.
"Hard day at work?" He asked, smiling.
"Well, I wanted to show you one more thing on the way home," he said. He tossed their trash into the can beside the car, dropped the tray in its rack, and started the car.
They drove in silence again. Mary didn't look at Johnny. She hoped he couldn't tell that she was grinding her teeth.
There was nothing, really, wrong with this man. And she kept reminding herself there was nothing wrong with her. But it was an unusual moment when her ex-husband's voice didn't play in the back of her head, telling her she was getting fat, she should never wear shorts at her age, she ought to think about having her nose fixed, maybe she should see other men to get some more experience, it might help their marriage, he wasn't going to stop flirting with other women as long as they found him attractive, and on and on.
It was a marriage her mother disapproved of, from the beginning. So it was all the more humiliating when Mary had to ask her mother if she could come home because she could only afford to pay a few hundred dollars a month for rent. The rest had gone to creditors and lawyers.
Mary's mother reminded her, every day, that she would never get another job and make more money unless she went back to school. She would have gone to school a few years earlier, but now the idea of sitting in a desk in a classroom with a bunch of people ten or fifteen years her junior made her feel like crying. She often told herself that she was in a transition, and she needed to let things rest for a while. She would figure out what she wanted to do next, but now she was tired and she needed to coast and not feel anything, for anybody, just for a while.
On the west side of Central Avenue Johnny turned south down an alley, then right into a large cul-de-sac and ended up in front of "the most decorated house in Phoenix." A sign proclaimed this triumph and the name of the newspaper running the annual contest, but it was barely visible in the glare.
There wasn't an inch of the dirt lawn that didn't pulse with Christmas lights. The roof was covered in bright white fake snow, with a giant plastic Santa riding his sleigh pulled by reindeer. A life-sized plaster Mary and Joseph and the Magi smiled from both sides of a wishing well in the yard, where pilgrims were encouraged to make a donation toward the electric bill.
On the roof a neon sign flashed: "Have." Then darkness. "A." Darkness. "Merry." Darkness. "One!"
"That's pretty," Johnny said as they huddled in the car and gazed out through the crowd of people who had come to see the house lit up at night.
"What do they come here for?" Mary asked, watching the crowd watch the house.
"To see something they can't see anywhere else, maybe."
Mary studied the scene. She tried to understand what the fuss was about.
"It's a waste of money," she said, finally. There was nothing else she could offer.
Johnny started the engine and slowly pulled away from the curb, watching the Christmas lights in his rearview mirror, all the way to the corner.
"Look!" He said when they turned down the next street. "You can still see the glow, over the rooftops!"
Mary pretended to look.
"Wow," she said and stifled a yawn.
They said nothing on the way home. Johnny drove a little over the speed limit, and Mary watched the street lamps flash by, dressed up in their sombrero-and-poncho-clad Santa Clauses.
At her house, Mary said thank you and good night in the car, explaining that Johnny didn't have to see her to the door, her mother was asleep, and the neighbors liked quiet. He said nothing about the piece of fur in its box, and she wondered if he had meant to offer it to her as a gift. Maybe she had misunderstood and embarrassed him.
Mary couldn't get over the feeling that she was crawling with fleas, that they were taking over her body and her mother's house. She wondered if Johnny would find any fleas in his car on the way home, and forever think of fleas when he thought of her, if he ever did.
She waved goodbye and unlocked her front door. She turned off the porch light before he drove away. She let out a ragged sigh now that she could go to bed and not have to talk to the stranger with the beautiful head stuck on the wrong body.
In the next room her mother was snoring lightly in the dark.
Mary opened the door to her own small room. She sat on the narrow bed but she wasn't sleepy any more. Outside a tepid breeze ruffled the palm trees and a dog barked.
Mary opened the closet as quietly as she could. She found the bundle of plastic wrapping by touch and pulled it out. Then she stripped the rabbit fur jacket of its plastic cover and put it on over her brown shift. The jacket lay heavily against her skin. Feeling its weight and the stifling warmth enfolding her, she clung to it with both hands, lay down on her bed, and closed her eyes to shut out the night.
Copyright © S.P. Miskowski. "Fur" first appeared in Fine Madness.