Name? Never had one. Most of us don’t around here. Only Houses get to have names, and Alphas, except they all have the same name. But really, it’s not so bad being a Stray. What’s in a name?
I don’t know where we are, or where it’s called, exactly. You see, because I’m a dog, I’m not very good with that kind of stuff. Truth be told, I’m not very good with time, or numbers, either. But I can remember things like what to eat and what Mom and my brothers smelled like, the stuff that matters.
And I know that the city is big, and that there are a lot of Shoes. Some of them are nice and others are nasty. Some of them have dogs, and these dogs are called Houses. But just because a Shoe has a House doesn’t mean it’s nice. In the city, the Shoes all drive Tires, and you have to watch out for those, because when you cross the street, the Shoes try to hit you with their Tires. It can be a dangerous business, crossing the street.
But the hardest part about being a Stray in the city is there is never enough to eat. When I was younger and still had my looks, it was different, but then the food stopped coming and now there is always Hungry. I tried to eat a leather shoe yesterday. And by tried, I mean did. When the leather passed through my body, the laces didn’t really pass so well, you know? It was like I had a second tail.
Everybody thinks of trying it, at least once. Even if it’s only in the “would you do it if you had to” sort of way. That’s normal, right? But I’m getting ahead of myself. I do that sometimes.
Before it happened, I was sitting with my friend the dog. Actually, I was sitting and he was waiting outside his usual spot. You know, the spot. Everybody’s got a spot for a sure meal. In his case, it’s this old, empty lot behind this Chinese place, where all day long, the Shoes come and go, and the Chinese Shoes feed them with the scraps from the day before, unless those scraps are rotten, in which case they end up in the stomach of my friend. In my case, it’s usually a garbage can. But it’s not so bad, really, you just gotta know what’s still good to eat.
It all started as we were sitting there, waiting for his rotten scraps. It started long before that, actually, but none of that matters, and it’s hard to remember. Anyways, this is what happened.
-Why do you keep eating that stuff?
-I like it.
-It makes you sick.
-But I like it.
-They only throw it out because they can’t give it to the other Shoes.
-But you’ve tried it.
-Who hasn’t? You get sick, you don’t do it again. That’s learning.
-Well, what are you eating?
We lounged around. When we’re not hanging out, I’m alone most of the time, but there’s good stuff about being a Stray in the city. I get to do what I want where I want it, and most of the time nobody stops me. Sometimes I have to run away from the Shoes, and you always have to stay away from the dog packs (especially The Wolves), but once you got that down, it’s not so bad. The Shoes have these places where lots of people come to eat, and you wouldn’t believe the smells they have! Most of the time, when I eat, it’s from the garbage, but really, it’s not so bad because I just remember what those smells smelled like. I wonder if there are names for all of them.
But anyways, there’s good stuff, too. When it isn’t wet outside, you can find some cardboard and lie on it. There’s this great ball of light that hangs in the sky and when the clouds go away it smiles at you. And when you lie there, it pets your back and makes you feel warm. But usually, there are clouds. It gets wet around here a lot, and dogs don’t like getting wet, really, but at least when it gets wet, you don’t have to be thirsty anymore. Back last autumn, it didn’t get wet for a month, and by the time it was Friday, I was so thirsty I was licking the wet from the street. Usually, this makes you sick, and it isn’t good to get sick. Not when there’s Hungry.
I was scratching at my neck when my friend the dog broke the silence.
-Smell anything good lately?
-There’s a new Italian place by the hydrant.
-What’s it like?
-Ever eat a whole wheel of cheese?
-It’s like that.
-You know, that gray stuff.
-I found some wet the other day.
-Yeah, a Shoe kicked over his cup and just left it there, so I drank it all up.
-Last Wednesday, I heard The Wolves talking about a new fountain.
-It might have been July, actually.
-They were by that new Italian place.
-No, I mean the fountain.
-Ruff. Wait, so you know about the new Italian place I was talking about?
-So why didn’t you say so?
The next thing you should know about the city is about the packs. These are the dogs who stick together, because it’s easier to be a dog when there are more of you. But you gotta be nasty. When you’re in a pack, you share everything: food, status, bitches, safety, and food. There’s always an Alpha, and he gets more than everybody else. But it isn’t easy, being an Alpha, because you gotta be the nastiest dog of all. I’d rather be a normal dog in a pack than an Alpha. There’s been some ruff stuff that’s happened on these streets. Maybe they wouldn’t need the packs to feel safe if they weren’t so nasty to each other.
The packs all have names. Like The Bones, or The Balls, or The Wolves, for instance. I don’t know who comes up with these names, but it really does a number for a dog’s self-esteem, makes his coat look good. Having a name, that is. When a pack of dogs get together, they call themselves the same thing, and they become like one big dog. What’s good for the dog is good for the pack, and when they get nasty at the same time, it gets hairy. But mostly it’s the way the pack feeds the dog. The dog becomes a bigger dog, and the bigger dog starts growling at the other down the street, until they get scared and go back to getting bigger. It’s like chasing your tail in circles. But we all want to be called something.
The door to the house opened then closed, and one of the Chinese Shoes threw out a big, black bag. It landed on the pavement with a wet thwack, next to the other bags against the wall. As my friend licked his lips, I could hear my stomach rumbling.
-I’m Hungry, bud.
-Have some Chinese.
-You know it isn’t good for you.
-It’s nice and hot.
-It’s going to make you sick.
-It’s not good to get sick.
He buried his snout in the bag, and I went back to lounging.
The trouble with the packs is it isn’t easy getting in. The Hungry doesn’t help. Because when there’s Hungry, you’re scrawny, when you’re scrawny, your hair starts falling out, and who wants to hang out with a balding dog? When there wasn’t so much Hungry, I had as many hairs as you ever saw on a dog. Mom was a House, so I was pretty good-lookin’, for a Stray. I’d go to the park, and could sit next to a family of Shoes, and sometimes they wouldn’t even mind. It would almost be like I was their dog, and they were my Shoes. If I was lucky, they’d sometimes give me a taste of what they were eating. If I was really lucky, maybe two tastes!
But as many tastes as you can find, there are never enough. The Shoes don’t understand that it isn’t so easy, being a Stray. It takes a lot of effort, you know, looking good. When you’re young, all the Shoes think you’re cute, and they want to give you scratches and treats. And then you get older, and it gets harder to think of new tricks, and the food stops coming.
The dirt sneaks up on you at first. You don’t remember it being there, but one day, it is. Clumped to your hair, smelling ruff and looking ugly. You think about how much energy grooming used to take, and all that strutting and tail-wagging, and now it just doesn’t seem worth it. So about last winter, my hair started falling out, and I lost my cute. With the loss of Mom’s parting gift, I was ugly as the rest of ‘em. Now at the park the Shoes yell GO AWAY DOG and there’s always Hungry.
I can still remember the way Mom and my brothers smelt. I wish I could remember what happened to them. If I ever come across one of them, when I sniff that butt: I’ll know.
My friend paused from his meal to look at me, sauce dripping from his mouth.
-I can’t watch you eat anymore. It’s making me sick.
-Where are you going?
-To find something better.
-When you’re done, I’ll be here.
-Alright, catch you later.
-Catch you later.
I turned and headed down the street, leaving my friend to his feast. As I walked along, passing through the darkening alleys, I never stopped thinking of food. I almost went back to join him, but I knew better. Or I thought I did.
I do know this one story about Mom, though. It’s the only thing I can remember. When she was young, not long out of her puppy years, she wandered out of her yard and into the street. There she came across a pack of dogs, and right out there in the open, they boned her. Nobody stopped them or nothing. A couple of Tuesdays later, my brothers and I were born.
Imagine a nice blanket around your head after you’ve enjoyed a warm bowl of milk. That’s how Mom smells. My brothers smell like dirt and worms because we’ve been playing outside and it’s been wet. My nose can remember lots of things.
I walked on. You have to avoid the center of the city, because there are always Tires there. They never stop, and even if you make it half-way across the street, you’ll never get to the other side. Instead, from the Chinese place, after the alleys, you have to go past the fire station and towards the park, where you can cut under a bridge to make it to the other side. Sometimes it’s hard not to get distracted by the park. I headed down the hill, listening to the Shoes bark at each other from their Tires in the street.
It wasn’t the first dead dog I’d seen. I noticed it as I passed under the bridge, lying there. Actually, I the first thing I noticed was the smell. The air was damp and thick with this nasty stank. I sniffed forward, and that’s when I noticed it lying there. As I drew closer, all I could think was how big my Hungry is. The sound of feet bounced off the walls, and I thought somebody else was there. But it was just me. Then there was a soft buzzing, but I didn’t think much of it because all I could think about was the Hungry. It was a small, bony dog, or at least it was before it died. There didn’t seem to be anything broken. It must have crawled down here to die alone. I crawled forward, licking my lips. And then, when my nose was inches above it, I noticed: flies.
The sight of their buzzing bodies pulled me back. I was under a bridge, looking for food, and sniffing a dead dog. A dead, rotting dog. I saw myself like as clearly as you might see anything else, bone-hungry and standing there, the flies buzzing on my nose and the body. I thought: that dog’s gonna die. What a sad, helpless animal. I turned and walked out of the tunnel, my tail and my head hanging between my legs.
Something has to change. I need to find food. If I don’t learn some new tricks, there will be no end to the Hungry, and I will die like all the others. Passing the park, I looked up and found the clouds had gone away, and in the night were a trillion little headlights shining above. And as I dragged on, searching for a place to sleep, I could hear The Wolves howling at the moon.
And that’s where we are now.