What Are You Doing Now That You’re Alive?
A week after the dogs disappeared from our town of Steeleville—and nearly a year after our earthquake—mothers and daughters and sons step onto their back porches in the brisk evening and call out to the vanished.
Miles, Lefty, Sylvester. Most everyone around here names their dogs after people. Hans, Adam, Gilbert. They call out names I recognize: Harold, Oscar D, Victor.
As I call my own Pomeranian’s name, Judy Verne, I figure that one day far from now, when California is finally an island and I walk with a cane and most of us have already made all the important decisions, we’ll discover just where the dogs had fled—and why. Until then, we just want someone else around. Someone who knows that we’re still here, waiting for good things to happen again.
I’ve had women over before. Gorgeous realtors who held my hand in bed. Librarians with braids and good lines of credit. None ever stayed long enough. They always had good reasons to leave Illinois or bad men to sleep with down in Cairo. And the thing is, when loneliness sets in, it doesn’t blow away when you leave the door open or disappear overnight. It sinks into sleeves, furniture; it’s at the bottom of every coffee mug. It’s the only thing that doesn’t leave, even when you beg. That’s why, nine months ago, I took Judy Verne home from the SPCA and let her sleep all night between my ankles.
On their porches, the mothers and daughters and sons lean far over the railings and call until their voices go hoarse.
Night comes on quickly with heat lightning that flashes blue, a roll of thunder not long after, and soon the fat March rain. I hope Judy Verne has a dry spot to sleep in, wherever she is. If the town’s husbands and fathers had still been around, they’d be out here, too, telling me that what’s true now ain’t always going to stay true. Sometimes the ground gives way, and then what do you do but give way with it? Now I’m a self-employed landscaper with rusty tools and some contacts. All I know is that I still love my dog. She’s it.
Chased in by the storm, the mothers and daughters and sons and I go back inside our Steeleville homes. We miss the warm bodies that shared our beds and licked our toes. But unlike me, everyone else believes the dogs will come back, just as they’d never thought the Duncan Hines plant would disappear.
I worked at the Hines plant when it hit. To be honest, though, I’d been on my lunch break. I was standing in the external walk-in freezer—a converted pump station set off from the main factory by several hundred feet—when the earthquake hit: a 6.5-er. The New Madrid Faultline: “Way, way overdue,” the news said.
People said they’d heard the earth move; they said it sounded at first like a growl, then like water boiling. But that was all talk. I hadn’t heard a thing.
In the freezer the lights went out and the walls caved some, but I stayed safe. Only when I kicked my way through the broken door did I see the real damage: the plant was gone. Gone-gone. The earthquake had opened up a sinkhole that swallowed the facility and took with it Steeleville’s ninety seven husbands and fathers, brothers and bachelors. What should have been ninety-eight.
Like most of them, I served as a cake man. I knew the other linemen, too: frosters, mixers, powder boys. And they knew me. All the men in Steeleville worked there; it was the best job, best benefits, highest pay in town. Men worked there their whole lives while their wives took over Kroger, Walgreens, and the post office.
At the end of the weekday all us cake men brushed brown sugar from our collars and our cuffs and shook hands in the parking lot. I knew Harold had beaten prostate cancer. I knew Oscar D liked going out for Chinese because of the Asian girls. I knew Victor had killed three different endangered species with his Chevy. And they knew that I liked potted cacti and film noir and that I thought Shoeless Joe Jackson was the only innocent Black Sox. We smiled smiles too big for our faces like that yellow, button-shaped mascot on the bags of lard chips we emptied all day. We called each other Mr. Chips, but only on the clock. In the break room, we’d drink old coffee with marshmallows. Some days we’d talk nothing but the mystery that is Woman.
I try not to think much about my time there, but every so often, while laying sod or putting down herringbone brick, I do things I know I shouldn’t. The first day I started taking my breaks in the outside freezer, the frosters had passed around a fifteen-year-old Playboy calendar: The Babes of Betty Crocker. In a low-cut top Miss May leaned her deep cleavage over a mixing bowl and licked a stirstick. Miss November more than resembled my ex-girlfriend. In the photo, she held up a candy apple and wore a short red apron, nothing else. You could see everything: boobs, butt, bush, my broken heart red and shiny in her palm.
I couldn’t stop staring. The frosters said, “Hey, Mr. Chips, puff, puff, pass!” but I didn’t. The calendar was terrible and wonderful and I wanted to burn the thing and breathe in the smoke and eat the ash in a rainbow confetti cake.
Instead of eating lunch with the frosters, I needed some fresh air. The dense white fog of powdered sugar and dehydrated vanilla glazes over the mixing floor tried to bar me from the exit. But even the sweet cloud couldn’t distract me enough. Outside, I saw the walk-in freezer, only a few weeks new then, and I went over to inspect it.
Cookie dough hadn’t piled up in the corner. Bags of Mr. Chips weren’t scattered about. Icicles didn’t hang off any shelves; there were no shelves. The door’s diamond kickplates, the neat aluminum floor, the air—perfectly spotless. No windows, no cameras, no nothing. It measured as large as the vulture cage at the St. Louis Zoo—big enough to circle around in a few times, but not enough to feel like you’d gone anywhere.
Only after the door had shut behind me and the cold rolled up my pants’ legs did I realize how much my shirt collar drooped with sweat. I checked my watch and found I was still holding the rolled up calendar.
I unrolled it, then rolled it tighter. I stalked around the room. The door had an inside glow-in-the-dark handle. A lock, too. I tapped one of the bare bulbs at the back of the room and it flared brightly for a second. My breath came out in big, odorless clouds that hung around me. It felt like I was being watched, so I locked myself in. This tingling sensation started at the top of my tailbone and eventually filled me up; the same thing happened every time I shopped in Kroger. Like even though there were plenty of people around me, they weren’t really there; I didn’t know their stories and they didn’t know what I was looking for. I put my face up to the freezer’s air panel. The place smelled like Orange Tic-Tacs. I thought of the candy apple in Miss November’s palm and how I’d lost my last baby tooth when I bit into one at the state fair.
In my hands the calendar flopped open. There Miss November still posed, busty and fruit-bearing. I didn’t know why I had to right then, but I jerked off to the calendar.
Short and sweet and over before I knew it, but when I came, it was good. Good; then great. I shook. My front teeth rattled. And after I finished, I felt good, too. I didn’t think about my ex-girlfriend, or Miss November, or any girl I’d ever lost my chance with.
I tossed the calendar in the dumpster. More and more breaks I took in the freezer. I started calling what I did there: ropeburning. Like, tied to my ankle, I could feel some heavy, lonesome part of me falling down a hole of my own making. Some days I cut the cord, getting rid of that awful weight for good. Other days I became the weight, gladly dropping out of sight. I started unlocking the freezer door. I wanted someone to walk in on me, just once. I ropeburned on Tuesdays, then Tuesdays and Thursdays, then every goddamn day of the week—until the place went under.
The day after the earthquake—the day after what the women started calling “Fathers’ Day”—was the day the first flyers went up.
On the Kroger lobby’s corkboard, I avoided the close-ups of cake men with familiar jowls, the same floppy ears, those thick German eyebrows.
Then someone put their faces on milk cartons. I stopped drinking milk.
The pictures spread to bakers’ mixes. Double Chocolate Brownies. Crumble Top Carrot Raisin Muffins. Yellow Rainbow Chip Cake. Then icing tubs, toothpick boxes, spoons. I wanted to stop shopping altogether, but I wasn’t smart enough to grow everything I needed. I only landscaped because people needed it after the earthquake ruined their lawns. All over Steeleville crooked yellow lines revealed where the ground had cracked. The stripes of dead grass like fudge marble swirls.
Structurally, the Kroger building had it bad. So did the post office, and the 76 with the collapsed awning. Bank signs down in living rooms and the two ABC stores looted for their last liqueurs. The town stayed dead for weeks, some parts even longer. Every so often I’d see a pair of beaten sneakers lying in an intersection with their laces tied together. As if all the men in town had been yanked out of their shoes and dropped some place else. It took me forever to figure out that the quake had finally shaken them down off the power lines.
Funny thing was, we all knew where the men went. Not a question of kidnapping or fugue. We could drive down the road to the very place where they’d last stood upright on the surface of the earth: at the far, far end of Erskine Road where the sycamores now grew slantwise and the wheat too tall and the road itself disappeared into this black gap. No one ever visited.
People called it “The Do Not Hole,” “The Donut Hole,” then just “The Don’t.”
A week after Fathers’ Day, I held my Sox hat down on my head and leaned forward over the edge of The Don’t.
Since they’d torn down the condemned freezer I had nowhere to ropeburn. I found myself constantly hard, barely able to go buy stamps without offending somebody. I couldn’t do it at home, either; the place felt too closed-in. I turned desperate there. I missed the cold freezer. How good it made my ropeburning—the best one had been just before the earthquake struck. I wanted to feel that again.
So I drove to The Don’t. I ropeburned on the edge and when I came it dropped into the darkness. The Don’t kind of matched the freezer—quiet and cool and surrounded by a town of people that held their own secrets—but better, too. It was like the world had parted for me. One giant, circular scoop opened in the earth for me to fill.
This yellow crane was still parked at the hole’s edge, leftover from the failed rescue effort. Its steel cable dropped straight down into the blackness, bottomless as far as anyone knew. No cable or rope or arm stretched long enough to bring those men back. The air still smelled of sugar and clay and every so often something sharply vanilla. Some people left fake flowers and ribboned picture frames on the rim. I’d kick them into the hole; “Scavengers,” I’d say. No birds ever came and filled the dead air with their lively chirps and cheeps. I drove there at least twice a week, every week, and burned my rope. And after I was done, I’d sit and wish Mr. Chips well, each and every one of them. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know what else to do. One out of ninety-eight was pretty shitty odds.
One evening after ropeburning, I threw my Sox hat in. I didn’t know why. The second it left my hand, I wanted it back. I was always doing stupid things.
Then, on the other side, I saw her. A small, lean figure. Definitely a woman. Youngish, but not by much. She strolled along the rim with her arms crossed. She’d seen me. She didn’t wave back. Her stooped silhouette just looked disappointed. I wanted her to walk over and hold my hand and stop looking so disappointed.
She sat down and took off her shoes. First the left, then the right. But this wasn’t how she threw them into The Don’t. Instead, she quickly tossed in the right. It was soundless, effortless, and even I flinched when the shoe—a sneaker or some blocky heel—dissolved into the emptiness between us. This woman and I had something in common.
She held on to the left shoe. She let it dangle from her fingertips. She inspected the sole.
I said, “Throw it.”
She wiped something from the heel. She undid the laces. She set it flat on her hand and nodded.
She waited for what felt like a very long time. It got darker. I kept begging her: Throw it.
Then she lifted the shoe over the back of her shoulder—it was definitely some kind of runner’s shoe—and threw it in. But she held on to the lace, and so the shoe dangled down only a few teasing feet.
“Let it go!” I finally yelled across the gap. “Drop it in for Christ’s sake!” I was already running in her direction. She took off too.
We ran hard along the hole. The more I advanced, the more she retreated. Her long black hair waved behind her and hid her face. We sprinted counterclockwise around The Don’t. We ran like this for half an hour. We were those zoo vultures, forever circling the perimeter of our cage with nowhere else to go. I wanted to tell her about ropeburning and the cake men and I wanted to know why she was there. How she got so fast. I finally had to stop, put my hands on my knees, stare at my feet to catch my breath.
When I looked up, it was night and she’d gone, taking her one shoe with her.
I went back every day for three weeks, hoping I’d catch her. I only found flowers, the yellow crane, and the sweet smell of extracts. I brought other things to throw in: a spade, Judy Verne’s leash, my spare Hines uniform. They each plunged, twirled, or floated down vainly. For the first time, low in the sky, turkey vultures started to hem in the area. Why they’d held off until now, who knows, unless it was me they’d waited for. Now they never left the sycamores.
I fell out of my ropeburn routine. I planned a garden. I kept things in check.
I bought a dog.
In the renovated Kroger, I watched little kids beg for Lucky Charms. Cereal was one of the few items that didn’t feature the “Have You Seen Me?” photos. My pantry held twelve kinds.
The mothers always told them yes. “Yes, I’ll buy them—we’ve been through a lot.” The mothers would see me and nod to me with tight smiles and then tell the girls and boys to put back the Lucky Charms. When the mothers passed me, they made sure to put a hand on my arm or hug me and sigh, never shaking my hand like the cake men had. “How are you doing?” they asked, meaning, “What are you doing now that you’re alive?”
After they passed, I’d return my own box of cereal to the shelf, only to find the mothers still eyeing me with cocked heads at the end of the aisle. I wanted to ropeburn right then and there, but I couldn’t. The mothers cooked up a shitty guilt in me. My teeth loosened, my tongue itched. They dried up my throat. Things I couldn’t explain. I wasn’t going to be like them, wanting their husbands back so badly. The cake men were gone-gone, and all I could do was stare into The Don’t and guess how long it would take an apple to hit the bottom.
Now, a week and a half after Steeleville’s dogs have gone missing, more than a few of us—mothers, daughters, sons, me—meet in the Walgreens’s parking lot. It’s unplanned. Like me, they hold printed flyers of red-eyed dogs and bold, underlined phone numbers. But their flyers are significant. Some they’ve stamped with trumpeted family crests, others with genealogical breeders’ charts, and still others decorated with stars and glitter and locks of golden fur. Where before I felt guilty for being in their presence, now I am more than embarrassed at simply sharing their air.
For my flyer, all I could find was a Halloween photo of Judy Verne. I’d made the decision to wait too long to buy a costume that year and all I could find was one on clearance: its tag read “Pharaoh Cat.” I hide my flyer under my shirt before someone sees.
“You laminated yours?” I ask an attractive woman in dark aviators. I saw her climb out of a cream Avalon with one low tire and a bent antenna. Already I don’t like her. In her glasses’ reflection, I look warped and untrustworthy. She wears a fleece headband that tightly binds all her black hair to her head. And the edges of her fur-rimmed coat flap like wings at the knees of her chinos. Her red flats match the Walgreens’ sign: a candy apple red. I wait for her daughter to run out of the crowd.
The woman sneers and says nothing. She snaps one of her flyers at me. It makes the Pop of a kid’s balloon. Several stockinged girls jump at the noise, but none move toward us.
The store’s glass door is already pasted over with other flyers:
“Help! Black Labrador gone! Oglethorpe! Likes peanut butter! Extra chunky!”
“My Dee-Dee went missing on March 8. Has one black spot under rear leg.”
“Corgie: Miller. No tail. Allergic to sewers and other dogs with allergies.”
Many offer “Reward!” but not how much. I wish I had money to offer.
The woman snaps her laminates once more at me. She rips one of the existing flyers down and uses its tape to affix one of hers to the door. Others follow suit. No one’s remembered tape. And no one knows why Walgreens is closed on a Tuesday.
I stick my flyers to a column with old gum. My phone number looks hopeless with its excessive ones and zeroes. Judy Verne is tiny in her blue, Egyptian headdress.
Before I can take it down, the woman strolls up beside me. She lifts her aviators to read my flyer and I glance at her Avalon again. From the rearview mirror hangs a gray sneaker by its laces. I think of the woman at The Don’t. I picture her silhouette running headlong at dusk.
“Judy Verne,” the woman reads. “Is that you, or the name of the paper company?” I turn to find she’s already let her glasses drop down. She’s older than the woman I saw at The Don’t.
“What’s under the wet blanket there?” she asks. “Looks like a feral cat.”
“That’s Pharaoh cat,” I tell her. “She’s supposed to be King Tut.” My voice grows softer; I’m keenly aware that I’m the only male in the Walgreens’ parking lot. This fact hollows me out.
The breeze blows some stray bangs into the woman’s face. They are as thick as licorice ribbons, dark and wavy. “My Ursula was Cujo for Halloween.” She blows away her bangs. “I used lipstick on her mouth for blood. She scared a teenager.”
I’m ready to give up on the flyers and drive home and never come out again when she asks, “You remember the earthquake, right? Of course you do.” When she smiles she shows off front teeth the size of lard chips. “I don’t know what your Siamese did, but my Ursula acted too funny before it happened. She ran around in circles. She buried someone’s right shoe.” The woman glances down at her own heels as if to confirm that, before today, she’d never been a victim. Then she grabs my arm. “Dogs know things,” she says, and squeezes, as if she does too.
“Judy Verne’s a Pomeranian,” I say, “with long fur.” I pull my arm free. “And I know they know things. But that doesn’t mean they’re coming back.”
At this, she pushes me away. I immediately want her to grab my hand instead. But before I can ask if she’s the one who saw me at The Don’t, the others circle us like scavengers around two dead things. These kids and moms and widows. Everyone has a story from Fathers’ Day.
“My dog ate a baby squirrel.”
“Frankie wouldn’t come out of the basement.”
“Mine gave birth. And she wasn’t even pregnant!”
The circle tightens around the two of us. Laughs and smiles harden into stern faultlines.
“Well mine ate a hundred squirrels!”
“Frankie burned down the fire department!”
“My dog fucked your dog.”
“It happened a year ago,” someone finally says. “A year ago today.” Several of us look out over the fields to where the smokestacks would have stood up straight, billowing white smoke like breath on the coldest mornings. We go quiet.
The pushing starts. Hands and elbows and makeshift batons of rolled flyers. I shove my last flyer in my pocket and hold my arms up in front of my face. Here I am, hemmed in on all sides in a Walgreens parking lot, about to be pummeled by fourth-graders and abandoned wives, and I just want to go burn my rope at the Don’t and then jump in.
I crouch down to crawl away. A knee catches me in the jaw so hard my teeth feel cracked. Someone pulls me up by the collar and I squench up my face before the next elbow.
It’s the woman. Her aviators hang askew from one ear. Her headband has disappeared and her hair turned a knotted mess. She has me by the shoulders. “You’re not even supposed to be here! You lost a cat!”
“I don’t care!” I yell back. I seize her skinny wrists. The whole risky morning feels like a complete waste of time. “Wherever they are, they’re not coming back!”
That’s when we hear the barking. How quickly I’d forgotten its crispness.
A tremendous, pure white German Shepherd comes loping past us, dragging a long leather leash and a buckle clinking on the road and all this followed by a man.
Shirtless, dressed in overalls and untied boots, he runs full-tilt after the dog. He doesn’t look familiar. He must be the only other man for miles. “Thunder!” he shouts, pouring sweat, “Thunder, come back, girl!”
And like that, all of us run. We leave our flyers floating in the lot, our cars idling. I run and the woman runs. We run hard after the man and the white dog. They turn north, west, then down Erskine. We shout, “Thunder! Thunder!” like we want storms to come steal us away too.
By the time we reach The Don’t, I’m convinced the dog is going to leap right into it. She tears toward the edge and I don’t want to see that on a day like today, not ever.
But as the dog comes closer, she slows, slows, stops, and turns around. Her long pink tongue lolls out of her mouth. She pants loudly. Her once white fur is now yellowed with pollen. The man catches up and grabs her by the scruff of the neck. “What’s gotten into you?” Thunder ducks and tussles in his big grip.
I’m so out of breath I can’t speak. My thighs burn and my feet hurt and my eyes water. Breathless, too, the woman goes to the hole’s edge and sways there. All around, the wild wheat bends dryly and the dust kicks up in twisters. The soil out here has always been bad. No farmer wanted it, so on came the Hines plant, and then down it sank.
Several mothers who’d gone back for their mini-vans have now pulled up along the road’s shoulder, but no one’s getting out.
The man nods me over. Sweat drips from his flat nose into his chest hair. His eyes sit on huge purple circles. He looks like he’s never had a day off in his life, and I envy that.
“I told her to stop,” he says. “She knows what that word means.” He dusts his free hand off on his overalls. “We usually keep her penned, especially since we heard all yours were up and disappearing. I don’t know how she got out. We’d keep her inside, but how do you live with something that large? Wife says she was a good pup that just got too big. What’s true don’t always stay true, you know?” The dog turns to me. One eye brown, the other hazel. She’s even bigger up close: easily a hundred and fifty pounds. I don’t know whether to back away quickly or reach down and bearhug her until she runs away again.
“Good thing she stopped when she did.”
“Some dogs don’t,” he says. “Some dogs is just outlaws.”
The man nods, then looks at me and nods again, as if he’s suddenly recognized my face from the papers a year ago. For all the men with photographs lining the grocery aisles and lobby corkboards, of course I’m the one he remembers. “It’s tough, I’m sure.” He jerks his head over his shoulder at The Don’t.
“Sure.” The more I look at this red-faced stranger and his dog that’s brought me here, the more I know he has no idea. I say, “The toughest part’s what’s next. Trying to keep going like how I used to when I know there’s no way I possibly can.”
“Changes you,” he says. “Losing a dog’ll do that.”
Thunder stops breathing while she swallows and I swear I can hear her insides knocking around like factory parts.
By now mothers and kids have climbed out of their minivans. From the corners of their eyes they glance at what’s no longer there. “What are we doing?” one freckled boy asks. They keep thirty feet from the hole and I give them the same wide berth.
I ask the man, “Where are you from anyway?”
His hairy chest and his flushed look seem to say, You really want to ask me that? “New Palestine.”
“But that’s ten miles from here!”
He sort of laughs, sort of coughs his way through a reply. “Would have gotten my truck, but I knew if I let her out of my sight for even a second, I’d never see her again.”
At my feet, Thunder drools. She tries to rub between my legs, but she’s too big to fit. She barks once and swallows again. I miss my Judy Verne more than ever before.
The man asks, “You think they’re all down there?” He gestures again with his chin. “Or just most of them?”
I don’t want to answer. I’m thankful that at the hole’s rim the woman waves for me to come, and I do.
“What are we doing here?” I ask.
The noon sun shines deep into the hole. It glints off metal or quartz or dog tags. But still no bottom in sight. No Sox hat. “Waiting for what?”
“Why do you think I have all the answers?” she snaps. “I’m not the one who comes here at night and jerks off all by himself.”
“So it was you.”
“That’s avoiding the question.”
“I have to do it.”
“I do a lot of stupid things,” I say. “But that’s one that feels right.”
“I don’t care.” She turns away. “I don’t care.” This is worse than when the mothers touch my arm and ask after me. They want answers; this woman doesn’t want anything.
“Why the hell were you there?” I ask. “Why’d you throw your goddamn shoe in but not the other one?”
“What, you wanted me to jump or something?”
“No,” I say and cross my arms. “You should have come talk to me.”
“Right. I’m going to talk to the pervert who drops trow at The Donut Hole.” She fluffs her hair off her neck and stares squarely at me. “It’s not like we had things to say. I came, end of story. I wanted to know what it was like to lose something I could replace.”
She stares down into the hole while I turn away. No vultures ride the air. Nothing up there but blue. Maybe they’ve all been caged. Maybe they’re gone for good. I don’t know, but I wish they’d come back. They always looked so devoted.
I ask the woman, “Your husband wasn’t enough?”
“If I’d had one to begin with, then maybe.”
Her hair blows around into her mouth. She’d kicked off her flats at some point and now her feet are the same yellow as the dog’s fur. Her toenails glow a pale, chipping blue. She’s the picture of grief, but a kind that I don’t think I’ll ever understand.
When I stick my hand in my pocket, I find my last crumpled flyer. I drop it and it rolls along The Don’t’s rim a few feet before it falls in. All things around here are headed that same direction, sooner or later.
Thunder barks again, and when I face the road the crowd is advancing. Kids and mothers and widows. They move together, all their legs shuffling in the dust, hands outstretched. They are hellbent and grabby and I’m trapped.
Then from the hole behind me comes a long, low howl. Not a dog’s or a man’s or hundreds of either. This rumble and moan. This bottled wail. The deepness of it opens a hole in my chest and fills it with sound. Everybody stops to listen. I cup my ears and lean over the edge and see nothing new. But no mistake there: the howl rises out of the earth and moves through our hair. And just as quickly, it stops. It doesn’t come back. No one moves.
Thunder bucks until she breaks free from the man’s grip. He tries to step on her leash but misses. “Catch her!” he says. The dirty dog turns circles. She darts toward the crowd, then away from them. She yelps high then growls low like she’s cornered. And then she comes straight at me on the hole’s edge.
I back up two steps and bump into the woman. She shoves me into the dog’s path with two hands and I want her to disappear. Only then do I catch my balance in time to see Thunder leap past me. And as she sails over the edge of the Don’t, I grab the end of her leash, still deciding, how long should I hold on?