Delly thought she was a cat person, even though she didn’t own any cats. She collected dozens of feline figurines, but whenever she went to the local animal shelter to possibly adopt a real cat, she always heard her mother’s voice, echoing from that afternoon when she was six years old and had stopped to pat a stray.
“Don’t touch that thing!” her mother shrieked. “It has fleas! And filth! And probably AIDS! Don’t you know that AIDS was brought over to the United States by cats?”
Delly, at six, was only barely aware of the United States as something she mumbled during the Pledge of Allegiance in school, and she had no idea what AIDS could be, except it sounded terrible. She’d wiped her fingers on her shirt and cried all the way to the closest restroom, where her mother soaked Delly’s hand and arm all the way up to her elbow in water so hot, it left her skin pink.
Much later, Delly knew what AIDS was and she knew monkeys carried it to the United States, though she wasn’t sure how the monkeys got here or how they transmitted the disease. Even so, as much as she loved cats, she just couldn’t bring herself to touch them. At the shelter, when the cats pressed themselves against the bars of their cages and rolled their green and blue and yellow eyes, Delly still swore she saw vermin and filth flying in black and grey flecks from their fur. Her figurines, though, could be dusted, and she did so, twice a week.
Her mother, still alive, gave her a new figurine twice a year, on her birthday and at Christmas, though she tsked at her every time, as if it was possible to catch AIDS from ceramic cats. And when she called on Saturdays, she always wanted to know if Delly was going out that night and with whom. Most of the time, Delly wasn’t. Her mother always wondered why. When there was a date, she always wondered why there wasn’t a second. Delly told her mother, “Oh, you know, Mama. He was just like all the others. After only One Thing.”
Which wasn’t true at all. It was Delly after the One Thing. Sometimes she got it, but usually only once with each man.
Delly knew she wasn’t that attractive. Her father refused to pay for braces when she was a teenager and so her buck teeth still protruded beneath her upper lip and pressed into her lower lip, creating two permanent red and moist indentations. She could never do anything with her hair, and so she didn’t do anything at all and it fell lank and lifeless down to her hips. Her eyes were crossed just a bit and sometimes she saw double. And she was heavy, always shopping in Lane Bryant and Torrid for the latest and sexiest wear for a size 28 woman.
Despite the teeth, the hair, the eyes and the weight, she felt that if she wore just the right clothes, a man would want her to strip as fast as possible. And then he would stay to watch her get dressed again and undressed and dressed and undressed until suddenly, twenty-five years flew by and it was time to celebrate their silver anniversary. Twenty-five years of dressing and undressing and never sleeping alone.
But all of the men she dated were fast, lasting barely twenty-five minutes in her bed, let alone twenty-five years. They kissed her briefly on the teeth, gave her hair and breasts an obligatory stroke’n’grope, found their way between her legs and came. Then they left, before she even had a chance to offer them the frostbitten wine she kept constantly cooling in the refrigerator.
Most of the men came from the Internet. Delly was great at cybersex, possessing fast and talented fingers on the keyboard. So by the time she met the latest man, he was usually primed and ready to go. And come. And leave.
But most Saturday nights, she was alone. And even when she wasn’t, she still slept by herself in her full-sized bed.
One evening, as she sat on the front step of her apartment building with her cell phone and her mother’s voice in her ear, a large dog stepped out from behind the garbage dumpster across the street. He stood still for a moment, caught in the setting sun, and his gray and white fur seemed to catch fire. His muzzle lifted to the sky, one leg raised in a point in her direction, he seemed as grand and ceramic as her cats, but then he lowered his nose and began to sniff. As he smelled the curb, the fallen garbage, the fire hydrant, he kept looking up at her and his eyes flashed alternately black and red. He stared right at her as he lifted his leg and blasted a heady stream of iridescent urine on the only tree, a skinny thing with just a few brown leaves. Then he started crossing the street. Delly couldn’t see a collar.
“Hey, Mama?” Delly asked. “What do you think of dogs? Are they vermin too?”
“Oh, no,” her mother said. “Dogs are regal. Majestic. Honorable. Think of Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, or Benji. Dogs save people. They didn’t bring diseases to our country.”
The dog sat next to her. His tongue hung out of one side of his mouth, giving him a cheerful and rakish appearance. Delly felt his hot breath against her knee.
When her mother finally said goodbye, Delly reached out tentatively to stroke the dog’s head. “Hello, Mister,” she said. He closed his eyes against her touch, then stood and walked down the street. Delly watched him go. Before she went back upstairs for an evening of television and dusting her cats, she reached into her pocket, pulled out her favorite snack, a Slim Jim, unwrapped it, and left it at the bottom of the stairs. When she came back down at nine o’clock, just to peek out, it was gone.
She began to leave a Slim Jim at the base of the stairs every morning before work, and again in the evening, at around seven o’clock. They always disappeared and she assumed the dog was eating them. Sometimes she saw him. He stood a few feet away and wagged his tail, a long slow sweep that held grace and power. Once, she held out the Slim Jim to him directly, but he just lowered his head and rolled his eyes coyly up at her. Another time, when she came down at nine o’clock to peek out the front door, he was sitting at the base of the steps like he was watching for her. The Slim Jim stuck like a cigar out of his mouth. He lolled his tongue around it, then drew it in and chewed slowly. He watched her the whole time, then licked his muzzle and trotted away, his tail swaying.
On a Saturday when Delly actually had a date, she wasn’t home at seven and when she and Brent came back to her place at ten, the dog was sitting on the bottom step. Delly felt guilty, but she didn’t want to say anything in front of her date and she didn’t have a Slim Jim in her purse. So as she passed the dog, she ducked her head and smiled secretly at him. She took Brent quickly into her bed. She tried to concentrate, but she kept seeing the dog, waiting downstairs for his snack. She thought of the way he looked at her when he ate his Slim Jim, a look of guarded gratitude and something else she couldn’t quite put her finger on. A strength of some sort. A directness.
Brent, she noticed when he rose above her, kept his eyes closed. Although she invited him to stay afterward, even mentioning the chilled-for-months wine, he left, mumbling something about having an early morning church service and he’d call her. After the door closed, she lay there for a while. Usually, this was the time she used to masturbate, since the men were all so fast. She reached into her drawer for a vibrator, but then just rested it on her belly. She was distracted.
Pulling on her robe, she tucked a Slim Jim in her pocket and went downstairs. The dog was lying on the sidewalk in front of the building. When she came out, he rose quickly and wagged his tail.
At that time of night, no one else was around, and so Delly wrapped her robe more tightly and sat on the bottom step. Peeling away the cellophane, she put the meat stick down on the sidewalk. “Here you go, Mister,” she said. When he lowered his head to eat, she touched his back, just running her fingertips down his spine. His tail moved slowly, beating against her knees. When he was done, he sat down and looked at her.
“Don’t you have an owner?” Tentatively, she ran her hands over his neck. His ruff was smooth, there were no breaks where a recently lost collar could have nestled.
He moved suddenly, pushing his head between her legs and pressing his forehead against her stomach. His nose, pointed down, stopped just above her crotch, and Delly attempted to close her knees, thinking he could smell the sex she’d just had. But he didn’t seem to want to move. She stroked him a few more times and he heaved a huge sigh. When he did, she felt his ribs against her thighs.
“All right then,” she said. “You might as well come up. Tomorrow, I’ll get you something besides Slim Jims.”
She placed a bowl of water for him in the kitchen, which he drank rapidly, and when she dug through her refrigerator for leftovers, he ate those too. Then, despite the late hour, she gave him a bath, just in case. She used her own shampoo and when she was done, he smelled like a fresh field.
That night, he slept at the foot of her bed. From time to time, he rested his head on her ankle.
She kept calling him Mister because it seemed to fit, and she bought him a black leather collar with shiny silver studs shaped like dog bones. She got a leash too and at night after work, they walked around the block together. He was a very neat dog, never messing up her apartment. She left the television on for him during the day and when she came home, he was on her recliner, watching Oprah.
When Delly told her mother about Mister, she had to come over and meet him. “Oh,” she said, running her hands through his fur. “Oh, he’s beautiful, Delly. He looks like Rin Tin Tin and Lassie all rolled together.” She brought him gifts, rubber squeaky toys and bones and brightly colored bone-shaped biscuits. She brought him a bed too, a soft sheepskin one with a brown leopard print, but Mister preferred to sleep in Delly’s bed at night, the recliner during the day.
As the nights went by, he slowly moved up from the foot of the bed, until he stretched full-length next to her, his head on his own pillow. Delly sometimes woke up pressed against him, her arm thrown over his filled-out ribcage. Other times, she woke with her back to him, his muzzle buried in her hair.
As Delly grew used to their walks, they went farther and farther, venturing into parts of her own neighborhood that Delly only glanced at as she drove through. She bought herself some sneakers and several pairs of drawstring pants. Her old clothes grew looser as the walks grew longer.
One night as they passed a bar, a man stopped in front of them. “Nice dog,” he said.
When he reached out to pat Mister’s head, Mister growled deep in his throat. He was leaning against Delly’s legs and Delly felt the vibration.
The man told her that he watched them walk by several times that week and would she like to stop for a drink? It was a Saturday night and Delly said sure, she’d just run back to put the dog in her apartment. When she got there, she took off the drawstring pants and threw on some of her Torrid clothes. Fitting more loosely now, the scoop neckline gapped and displayed even more rolling flesh than usual. She nodded her approval, then turned the television on for Mister.
She stayed at the bar for about two hours. The man who invited her eventually moved on, but she struck up conversation with another and then came home with a third. When she brought him to bed, she looked over his bare shoulder when she heard a deep whine. Mister, hackles raised, stood next to bed. She tried to wave him away, but he stayed, his whine going up and down several scales. The man hesitated for a moment, looking nervously at the dog, but when Delly said it would be okay, he got down to business, finished quickly, kissed her, said no to the wine, and left.
Delly lay there, stared at the ceiling, and used her vibrator. She wasn’t sure when Mister crawled on the bed, but suddenly, he was there and humping her leg. She pushed him away and he panted while she finished. Then she curled against him and they went to sleep.
She picked up other men. From the Internet, from bars, once from a grocery store. Each left. Delly began to cry afterward while she used her vibrator. Her clothes continued to fall loose and so she had to keep buying more and she was able to leave Lane Bryant and Torrid behind to shop in stores that carried XL’s and size 18’s. She had her hair cut and she wore it in a loose wave against her cheek. There wasn’t anything she could do about her teeth or her eyes, but she began practicing lowering her upper lip, to make her teeth look less big, and she also began to tilt her head in a way that she felt made her eyes look straighter.
But still the men left.
Mister kept standing next to the bed, whining. He never sat nor lay down. As soon as the men left, he scrambled up next to her and he licked her tears away as she used the vibrator. He kept trying to hump her leg and eventually, she just gave in, pushing him away when she was done. It was too hard to hold him off while she brought herself to orgasm; he was a big dog. He always lay close to her afterwards and his warmth and steady breathing made her feel better.
Then one night, he sat up while she was using the vibrator. He leaned forward and took a sniff and Delly jumped and pushed his head away. But then he licked the vibrator and his tongue traveled down to her. And he did it again.
Delly felt a jolt and she was stunned. She reached down and touched his head and he began to lick steadily. She removed the vibrator and opened her legs further. She stopped thinking. When she came, his steady rhythm maddening, never increasing, never slowing, the same lollop-lollop she heard him use at the water bowl, her mind splintered and scattered momentarily throughout the room.
Rolling away, gasping, she pressed her belly and her still throbbing crotch to the sheet. She felt the bed shift, then Mister’s nose pressed against her rear. He sniffed, then snorted. Both of his front legs appeared on either side of her neck, and he buried his muzzle in her hair. She knew what was going on before she felt his flanks beating against her.
She lay there for a minute, feeling his breath, feeling his heat. She was still damp. He wasn’t going anywhere. And every night, when she came home, he bounded to the door to meet her, his eyes overjoyed, his tail waving so strongly, she no longer had her cat figurines at tail-height in her apartment. His happiness sometimes led to destruction.
Slowly, she raised her hips until she was on her knees. She kept her upper body pressed against the bed. When she felt him enter her, she shuddered. He began to groan and growl. She learned that when she tired, she had only to roll onto her back and he would lick her refreshed. When she presented her hips, he mounted her again.
Eventually, Delly climbed out of bed and staggered to the kitchen. Ignoring her crystal wine glasses, saved especially for this occasion, she dumped the water out of Mister’s plastic dish and filled it with the refrigerated wine. They drank from it together, she on all fours, Mister’s tail stroking her bare thigh.
When they went to sleep that night, Delly’s knee knocked her vibrator off the bed and she heard it roll under the bedside table. She left it there.
Eventually, Delly’s mother stopped asking her about her lack of Saturday night dates. She laughed when Delly replaced her mailbox sign with “Mister and Mrs. Delilah Markham.” When her mother died, Delly took her inheritance and bought a nice house with a large yard out in the country. When the moving men came for her furniture, she found the old vibrator, still on the floor where the bedside table used to be. She left it for the future occupants. She bought a king-size bed and six lit curio cabinets for her cat figurines. She threw out the dog bed that Mister never used. She bought a new size 10 wardrobe and had oral surgery to fix her teeth. And she turned down men right and left. Yet, she never ever slept alone again.
Kathie Giorgio is an author living in Wisconsin. Her fiction has appeared in Harpur Palate, Fiction International, Dos Passos Review, Bayou, Eclipse, Potomac Review, Hurricane Review, and Bellowing Ark, among many other journals. Her first novel, The Home For Wayward Clocks, will be released this January by Main Street Rag.