Cindy parked her work truck in the shade by a McDonald’s and took a big bite out of her Quarter Pounder. Her lunch breaks were always interrupted by phone calls — the endless calls from dispatchers. Today was no different.
When her phone rang, she turned down the Brad Paisely song on her radio.
“Hey, sunshine,” said Marcus, the dispatcher. “Feel like catching any more dogs today?”
It wasn’t the call Cindy wanted to get. But at least it wasn’t the call, the one she constantly feared getting.
“Not really, asshole,” Cindy replied. “Where am I going?”
“It’s not a pleasant one. Another guy got attacked. They said a Rottweiler ran him down. It’s right by the cemetery at Romine and Malcolm X Boulevard.”
What’s the point? Cindy thought. By the time she got there, the dog would be long gone. And she would circle around the neighborhood looking for it. She’d been doing this job for a year now, and it often seemed pointless. But it paid her bills.
“I’m on it.” She placed the half-eaten hamburger back in its wrapper and started the engine. At the very least, she could look for other strays in the neighborhood. There was no shortage of strays in Southern Dallas these days.
As she drove through the streets, she wondered how her city had become this bad. There were overgrown lawns, boarded-up houses, trash in the streets, and the dogs. The dogs terrorized the city blocks, making it their playground.
Cindy wanted to be a veterinarian. Most people were scared of the dogs, but she usually felt bad for them. Becoming a vet, though, meant more school, and it was time and debt she couldn’t afford. Besides, she had Daryl to look out for. God knows Daryl needed someone to look out for him.
A small group of people gathered around the ambulance, and Cindy parked her truck nearby. A Hispanic man lay in a gurney, and he had deep cuts and bite marks on his legs. She walked through the crowd to the back of the ambulance.
“A Rottweiler. That’s what happened,” the young, male EMT said. “He had to climb on top of a car to get away. Still bit him a few times.”
What kind of life is this? To go out of for a pack of smokes and get chased down by a rabid dog.
“I’ll scan the neighborhood.” Then Cindy turned to the victim and said, “Sorry about this, sir. We’re making the rounds. If you see something like this …”
“Call you?” he interrupted. Then he laughed cynically, as he took off his Cowboys hat and wiped his brow. “You know how many times I’ve called? Nobody comes. And it doesn’t matter if you catch the damned thing. There are dozens of other dogs out there you won’t catch.”
The EMT chuckled and closed the doors. Cindy didn’t have to say anything — the man was right. The dogs ruled this part of the city.
“Do your job,” an old woman said as Cindy passed by. The woman sneered when she saw Cindy’s gray Animal Control uniform. “Damn city is going to hell.”
Cindy climbed back into the work truck. She wanted to call Marcus and tell him to shove it for sending her on this goose chase. But that’s what she got paid for, however miserable it was.
She turned the country radio station back to full blast and cruised the neighborhood looking for dogs, keeping here phone in her front pocket. She hoped Daryl would call.
Daryl was a good kid. He really was. That’s what Cindy repeated to herself in her darkest moments, when she hoped he would come home and get clean.
She gave birth to him when she was 17 years old. He was the product of an intense affair with a man she met in high school who promised her the world. But once Daryl was born, the man disappeared into the streets. He was never in Daryl’s life.
It was Cindy’s day off, and she flicked through the TV stations for something to watch. The news coverage about the stray dog crisis was unrelenting, and she ignored it. Instead, she settled on a reality show called Home Makeover.
In the show, happy, beautiful couples hired a handsome man named Jake to redo their homes and make their dreams come true. At the end, they showed the couples side by side with wide smiles, talking about how their new life was beginning.
Cindy wanted that.
She hadn’t heard from Daryl in three days. Only God knew what he was doing, what abandoned house he was squatting in, shooting dope with his girlfriend, Tammy.
When did it all go wrong?
She talked to Marcus, the dispatcher, about it often. He suggested she go to Nar-Anon meetings, where she could share her pain with other parents of addicts. But she wanted a quick fix; she didn’t want to “detach with love” as Marcus suggested. She just wanted everything to be okay.
The loneliness hit her the hardest on her days off, when she had nothing to do and no place to be. She checked her OkCupid profile. Many of the messages were from horn-dog men looking to get in her pants. Sometimes she let them, just to feel wanted. Other times, it made her sick to her stomach.
A text message popped up from a co-worker. “Can you cover for me today?” it read. She had nowhere else to be. She had nothing else to do. She might as well work.
The sun set over the cookie-cutter block of rowhomes in Southern Dallas as Cindy finished her workday. The streets were empty and eerie because people were afraid to leave their houses. Sometimes Cindy could hear the barking outside as she lay in bed at night. It reminded her of wolves howling at the moon. Her neighborhood was a wilderness.
A month ago, a pack of strays killed a woman. Five of them attacked her and ripped her skin away. The reports said her body showed more than 100 bites. The victim’s sister told the newspapers they “chewed on her like a steak.”
As she grabbed her mail, she saw her neighbor Demetrius sitting on his steps with a beer and a smoke. It was his usual routine after a long day of cutting grass.
“Hey there, Cindy. Anything exciting today?”
Demetrius wasn’t like her other neighbors. Most people hated her for working for Animal Control. But she’d known Demetrius for years, and he didn’t hold it against her.
“Same old. Some poor guy was attacked by the Oakland Cemetery.”
Demetrius shook his head and laughed. “You know, they don’t have this problem in the suburbs. I’m over there every day, and it’s nothin’ but white fences and clean streets.”
He finished his smoke and stubbed the butt on his steps. “Damn politicians don’t care about us. They’d let this part of the city burn if they could.”
Her neighbor was right. Animal Control was understaffed and underfunded. Combine that with irresponsible dog owners, and you had a third-world problem in an American city.
“Screw ‘em,” Cindy said. “Really, they should lock up all the people who let their dogs loose. We can’t catch all of them.”
Demetrius raised his beer in salute. Across the street, a pitbull wandered out of an alley and rummaged through a trash can. “Amen to that. So, how’s Daryl?”
“He’s okay,” she lied. “Still looking for work.”
“Tell him he can always work part-time for me. Mowing lawns ain’t that hard.” He stood and opened his screen door. “I think I just saw him and his girlfriend go in the house.”
Her heart skipped a beat. “Just now?”
“I believe so.”
She tried not to show her anxiety. “Let me check.”
When she opened her door, she saw him.
Daryl sat on the couch with Tammy, eating Ramen noodles and watching cartoons. He sat there casually, like nothing was wrong.
“Where have you been?” she yelled.
“Around.” He didn’t bother to put the noodles down and spoke with a mouthful.
He looked terrible. His sunken face stared blankly at the TV, and his gaunt body lay on the couch like a skeleton. He looked like all the other heroin addicts Cindy had ever known, like a zombie with one foot in a muddy grave.
Cindy used to grab him and look for signs he’d been using. She’d look for needle marks on his arms and hands and for blood-shot eyes. She didn’t do that anymore.
She put her keys on the living room table and took a deep breath. Daryl laughed at the bizarro cartoon on Adult Swim. Tammy sat beside him with that same faraway look in her eyes.
“You can’t keep doing this to me, Daryl.”
He didn’t respond. The distance between them was too vast. Cindy knew that. She remembered the way her mother used to get when her mother was using. How the lines of communication would shut down and the tension in the room grew thick.
“You can’t just ignore me.”
Nothing. And then another laugh at the cartoon. Daryl didn’t even turn his head to acknowledge her. The memories came flooding back for Cindy now. She recalled finding her mother unconscious on the couch with drool dripping out the side of her mouth. Her mother’s eyes had rolled to the back of her head.
She remembered her dad panicking as they rushed her to the emergency room. They brought her back to life and shipped her to a treatment center. That was the last time Cindy saw her mother in person.
“Get out,” Cindy said silently.
Daryl still didn’t respond. Tammy turned around and looked at her with glassy eyes.
“I said get out!”
Daryl turned the volume up on the TV and kept eating. Cindy grabbed the remote from his hands and shut the TV off, creating a funeral-like silence.
“Get out of my house.”
Daryl’s expression didn’t change. Cindy looked into his eyes and a black hole where her little boy used to be. He looked away after a moment, but Cindy kept staring. She wondered if she was doing the right thing. If getting tough would snap him out of his haze. But mostly, she was just angry and tired.
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. I can’t do this anymore.”
Daryl stood up, his black shirt loosely hanging over his skeleton frame. He grabbed Tammy’s hand and looked into Cindy’s eyes again.
He’s a lost little boy. She wondered what the voices in his head sounded like. If they were as nasty and self-loathing as hers were.
Cindy wanted to grab and hug him. She wanted to cradle him like she used to when he was a baby. She wanted to squeeze the terror of the world out of his body and tell him everything was going to be okay. But she didn’t believe it herself.
“I don’t need this.” He opened the screen door with a jerk and stormed out with Tammy. The door slammed shut, and Cindy watched him walk away.
She sat and tried to calm herself. She looked at her shaking hands. Her son was out on the street, wandering like one of the loose dogs. There was nothing she could do about it. Maybe she would get the call; maybe it would be tonight.
Cindy closed the door of the dispatcher’s office. The sound of barking from the cages was so loud she had to. Marcus played Words with Friends on his phone in between bites of his sandwich. The last call from the two-way was thirty minutes ago.
Usually, they didn’t respond to complaints right away. It was pointless. Instead, Marcus and the other dispatchers marked down the area of each complaint on a map. After there were a cluster of complaints, they’d finally send an officer to investigate.
Everyone at the office knew their efforts were like trying to plug a hole in a dam with a piece of gum. The latest figures showed there were more than 7,000 strays concentrated in Dallas neighborhoods. It would take new legislation from city hall to solve this problem. Not the efforts of a few dog catchers.
“Have you heard from him yet?” Marcus asked, not looking up from his phone.
“No. I haven’t.” Cindy stared off through the windows at the dogs. Many of them were malnourished; some were dying. She thought of Daryl’s sunken face, glassy eyes and malnourished body.
“He’ll be back. They always come back. He’ll need money. Or he’ll need a warm bed to sleep in. It won’t be long.”
“It’s already been a week. He never stays away this long.” She chewed on her pink nails as she spoke.
“You probably pissed him off real good. Maybe that’s what …”
The sound of the two-way cut Marcus off. They listened apathetically — it was just another call. But the voice this time sounded urgent.
“Got an attack near the Hidden Creek Apartments,” the voice said. “This one’s pretty bad. Better send someone out — and quick.”
“Hidden Creek?” Cindy said. “That’s where Tammy’s parents live. Ask him …”
Marcus held a finger to his lips and grabbed the two-way. “What’s going on, Mac? How bad they hurt?”
“Marcus. Ask him who the victims are, god damnit.”
“Yeah, it’s bad,” the voice said. “Two kids, about 18 to 24, I’d say. Ambulance is on the way. Just send someone quick.”
Cindy grabbed the two-way out of Marcus’ hands. Her hands were shaking again. “What are their names?”
“Calm down, Cin.” Marcus put a hand on her shoulder. Cindy slapped the hand away.
“We don’t have an ID yet. It’s a male and female. Just hurry and come down.”
Cindy slammed the two-way on the desk and grabbed her keys like the building was on fire.
“Don’t get paranoid,” Marcus said. “It could be anybody. And don’t drive like a …”
Cindy was already out the door, running to the parking lot. She was out of breath by the time she got to her work truck. The tires squealed as she pulled out and headed toward Hidden Creek.
“Stupid, stupid motherfucker!” she said aloud. The one time I lay my foot down and kick him out, and he gets killed in a week.
Her heart raced as she sped through stop sign after stop sign. She finally hit a red light, and she banged the steering wheel as she waited. The car in front of her slowly moved as the light turned green, and she slammed on the horn. Finally, she sped around the driver.
What kind of mother are you? What kind of mother raises a drug addict? And then kicks him out and signs his death warrant?
The mid-day traffic was light, and she zoomed to the apartments in under 20 minutes. As she pulled up, she saw the crowd gathered near the ambulance. Jimmy, another Animal Control officer, argued with someone as she rushed past.
“Hey!” Jimmy yelled. “Cindy!”
She zipped past him to the ambulance. The back doors were closed and they were ready to pull out. She walked to the driver’s side and banged on the window.
“What are their names?” she blurted out.
“What?” the driver asked, pulling the window down.
“I said, what are their fucking names?”
The driver’s face tensed up. “We have to get out of here, lady. They’re in critical condition.”
“Open it up back there.”
“I said open it. I need to see them.”
Jimmy rushed over. “What the hell is going on?” The crowd watched, wondering what this Cindy was doing.
“Get out of my way,” Cindy said.
The driver relented and got out of the ambulance. “We didn’t ID them yet. They weren’t carrying any ID. Make this damn quick.”
The short walk from the driver’s side to the back of the ambulance felt like an eternity. She felt like her heart was about to explode.
The driver swung open the back doors and Cindy pushed him out of the way. The two EMTs looked amazed as she climbed in. “What the hell?” an EMT said.
She grabbed onto the light-skinned boy on the gurney. Bandages were wrapped around his arms and legs, and his eyes were half-open. He had puffy black hair and a thin, delicate face.
It wasn’t Daryl.
“That’s enough.” The driver grabbed Cindy by the arm and pulled her out of the ambulance. She felt weak as she fell to one knee.
“Will you please tell me what’s going on?” Jimmy said.
Cindy threw up her breakfast as the ambulance sped off. The ground spun and she saw tiny stars doing semi-circles on the blacktop.
“Jesus Christ.” Jimmy stepped back as she vomited again. The crowd gathered around and watched her, broken Cindy, like she was a sideshow act.
“I need to get away from these people,” she said, softly.
Jimmy helped her up and they walked to her truck. She wiped the bits of vomit from her mouth and rubbed it on her pants.
“What about us?” a middle-aged man asked. “What about these god-damned dogs?”
“We’ll be with you in just a minute, folks,” Jimmy said.
Cindy sat in the driver’s seat and took a deep breath. In the street ahead, two pit bulls sauntered down the block with their tongues out. She had enough of the dogs and the job. She wanted to go home.
“I thought it was my son,” she said. “I thought my son got attacked.”
“That explains it.” Jimmy paused and looked at the ground. “Why don’t you call off the rest of the day? You’re in bad shape.”
She watched the pit bulls playing with each other. They swatted at each other’s faces with their paws up. Then they snapped. They barked at something across the street and hunched down into mean poses. She could see a big Husky scampering along.
The pit bulls kept barking as the Husky walked out of sight. A teenage boy then appeared on the other side of the street. The boy froze and watched the pit bulls.
“Cindy? Earth to Cindy …”
She turned and looked at him. “Yeah. I think I’ll go home. I need to get some rest.” She took the keys out of her pocket. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Jimmy.”
Cindy turned her phone off and put it in the dashboard. She wouldn’t wait for Daryl’s calls anymore. Her baby was sinking, and she didn’t want to drown with him.
She looked at the boy across the street again. He was smart. He walked slowly backwards while keeping his eyes on the dogs. Then he turned around and quickly walked away. He was used to this routine by now. He was used to living in the city of dogs.