Dogs of Summer
I didn’t complain when Henneman, my boss, fired his housekeeper and stuck me with some of Rosalba’s duties. Grocery and laundry runs made the days go faster. They got me out of his house and into his car, where I could smoke and blast music as I bombed down Laurel Canyon toward Bristol Farms and the Splendid Cleaners. I took my time going back, saying I’d gotten stuck in traffic. He didn’t question me, and he paid what he called my “stipend” in cash, so I could keep it all, tax-free.
His dogs were another story. A crew of odds and ends named Chuck, Bobs and Tio, they swarmed around as I answered phones at the island in his kitchen. Plopped in front of the room’s glass doors, their hairy beds spoiled my view of his crescent-shaped pool. Their fur landed in my sandwich. Chuck, a mangy chow mix, stank like a porta potty. Bobs, a demented shepherd, licked himself obsessively. Tio, the part-Chihuahua brains of the operation, looked like a walleyed mouse with cartoon ears and a limp from an old car crash that didn’t stop him from jumping on furniture.
During these post-Rosalba weeks, now stretching into a month, their walks were the low point of my day. Juggling three leashes, the treat pouch, the poop bags and my chirping cell (Henneman, usually, or Katie and Maya, my roommates back in Ithaca, texting pictures of the cat), I yanked the boys down Woodrow Wilson Drive, muttering, “Go, you shitheads, what’s wrong with here?”
Each tugged me in a different direction, even timid, arthritic Bobs, while Tio, who seemed to have forgotten his brush with death, instigated sit-downs in the weeds as cars roared by. I sometimes gave up and smoked, snapping my own pictures for Katie and Maya. A speeding Tesla. Tio gazing up with his head tipped, ears spread like satellite receivers. Cuuute!
My friends didn’t see how he humped the other dogs—whichever part he could reach—or how, when I tried to stop him, he growled and I had to step back with my hands up.
It was Tio, Henneman’s newest rescue, who had brought Rosalba down. From my island perch, I had watched that war unfold. On one side was this dignified, fifty-year-old lady, who’d raised four kids on a maid’s salary; on the other, this entitled little asshole.
Rosalba couldn’t see the writing on the wall. Looka my counter, she’d mutter, slapping her dishtowel at the paw prints on the granite. Looka my cheet, holding up a stained duvet.
Om-balieva, she’d conclude, her favorite, all-purpose descriptor.
In their battle of wills, a contest for Henneman’s heart, Tio had steadily upped the ante, tearing into Rosalba’s Fama magazines, peeing in her laundry basket and stealing the other dogs’ food. One day, when she intervened, he attacked.
I was in the kitchen when she threw down her ultimatum. “You gotta shoose, Mr. H. Fi’year I wor’ for ju, no pro’lem. Now issme or this idiota.”
She cried when he chose the idiota, but I knew he would. Sadly, respectfully, immovably.
Of all the dogs, only Tio got to sleep in his room. Only Tio was allowed in his office, cluttered with club chairs and closed in with plantation shutters.
Now, with Rosalba gone, Tio had set his sights on me.
“Henneman’s office, Sophie speaking. Sorry, no. Take a message? Henneman’s office...”
I wore a headset like a pilot and worked a console phone while sitting on a barstool. Shiny appliances surrounded me—glass-fronted fridge, six-burner stove—and through the Bouquet of Dog, I smelled gardenias from Henneman’s garden and grapefruit from somebody’s ranch. He knew people. Actors. Writers. A network that could eventually be mine, if I could figure out what to do with it, and myself.
“He’s in a meeting,” I said, pushing buttons. “He’s unavailable. He’s away from his desk.” Or, one I especially liked: “He’s tied up.” As if someone—maybe me—had roped and tossed him in a closet.
Thirty-five, thickly muscled, with a shaved head and sleeve tattoos, Henneman was a former tech-exec who’d made a pile from a dating app and now sat on the boards of environmental and animal-rights non-profits. He had an easy, affable style I suspected might hide a complicated personality.
Every morning, snapping awake in my Koreatown sublet, I pulled on loose jeans that camouflaged my big thighs and an Oxford shirt that added starch. Dark-framed glasses outlined my blue eyes, which I further emphasized with kohl. My hair, brown but streaked blond in the spirit of this summer, I piled and clipped, or tucked back in a careless ponytail. In the mirror, I appeared hopeful, serious, almost pretty—like someone you could trust.
When I got to the house, the big dogs milled and bumped around, happy to see me. Tio hung back, his creepy, bifurcated gaze half on me, half roaming around the ceiling, reminding me of a lazy-eyed girl I’d known in second grade. Junie Riley. Like Tio but less lucky, she’d been one of the world’s unwanted, the first I’d come across in my young life. Hanging around the playground’s edges, in a ratty, stretched-out baseball jersey, she became an irritant, a nagging specter of how things worked: If you weren’t inside the circle, you were lost. Now, here I was at Henneman’s. And here was Tio.
When I went to the bathroom, he found my purse and chewed a hole in it. He chewed photos from my wallet. An old boyfriend. My baby niece. Junie, in her timid way, had thrown down a gauntlet too, which I shuddered to remember. A quivering Look at me.
Sweeping the scraps up, I pretended not to look at Tio watching from his bed, head cocked. I brought my other purse to work and tucked it in a cabinet. When Henneman and I met together at the island and Tio jumped between us, his bowtieshaped tag tinkling, I focused on my boss.
“Gimme the Four-One-One, Sofe. Hit me,” he’d say, and I’d read the messages from my laptop.
He filed details in his head, the minor stuff—house-related, dog-related—that I handled. (For more important things, he had a secretary who, though on maternity leave, still worked for him from home.)
When I finished he said, “Excellent,” scooping the dog up to croon, “Who’s a g’buoy? Who is?”
He went out early for runs, or to SoulCycle or Yogaworks. When he came back, he checked in again, towel slung around his neck, gulping the drink I’d made—kale, beets, celery, mint. In his shorts and tank top, exuding BO and dripping sweat, he gave me small jobs for the day. “Call the new cleaning people? Get soymilk and spirulina? Make reservations at Ammo?”
Though I kept part of his calendar, I didn’t know much about his personal life. Who he mainly hung out with. Who he dated. I booked appointments through secretaries and receptionists and spent days steering his ’71 Mustang, which he’d lost interest in when he’d bought a ’61 Eldorado, along avenues of palm trees and Spanish mansions. For Katie and Maya—still stuck in the same old Collegetown apartment, waitressing at the same restaurant, still saving for culinary school—I snapped pictures of the wild Pacific, curling and tumbling in ragged greens and savage blues.
Of course, my friends knew who Hennemen was. People had done an item; Vice, a capsule interview in which his answers were sly and not terribly revealing. In a Newsweek profile I read while in line at an Ithaca 7-Eleven, he’d tersely summed up his vegan lifestyle: “My body and the planet are my temples.”
Huh, I thought.
When I finally met him, in the driveway of his house, I was surprised to find him shorter and uglier than his pictures. To him, I worried, I was a kid he’d hired as a favor to a friend of a friend of my parents. Not even a close friend.
Sometimes, when I voiced some outsider’s observation about the city—about the ratio of gyms to people, for instance, or how everyone was so thin, or so tan; didn’t they worry about skin cancer?—I sensed this flicker of interest. Like, who are you?
Then his cell would ring and I’d fade, like a photo in the sun.
He went to meetings and I wandered around his house, a wood-and-glass contemporary, spread out on its own hilltop. Shutting the dogs in the kitchen, I opened drawers and bounced on chairs, switching on rice-paper lamps a decorator must have chosen for their pooling shadows on the leather sofas. Four of these were arranged in groups beneath the beamed ceiling (rich blue, like the sky), and I went from one to another, enjoying their soft, impersonal hug.
In my parents’ house, the furniture was hard and covered in scratchy plaids. The lamps wore ruffled shades and blazed like high noon, which my mom considered best for reading.
Henneman didn’t read. (Angelenos didn’t—an observation I kept to myself.) His bookcases held objects: glass fishing floats, glazed vases. If I knew he’d be gone awhile, I went upstairs, pleased at how this pissed off Tio, who banged against the kitchen door. I made discoveries: In Henneman’s trash, candy wrappers; in his bathroom, Xanax. His desk drawers held pictures of a Cub Scout and a Little Leaguer named “Stevie.” His closet, a heavy album. He’d been married, it turned out. Sitting cross-legged on the carpet, I turned pages and found him in a tux beside a veiled brunette with creamy shoulders.
At night, my cell rang through a wad of sheets.
“Sophia! You’re there!” cried Katie, while Maya chimed in on speaker, “Your dog’s adorable! Those ears! Is he a puppy?”
I sat up on my futon. “Hey, you guys.”
They were watching the late-great Anthony Bourdain, shouting at the TV. “Don’t eat that, you penis!”
I got up and walked around the unraveling wicker stool, crates of yard-sale books and a skirted armchair that constituted my apartment’s “furnishings.” I didn’t want to think what had happened on that futon, which I’d zipped in a plastic bag designed for people with “sensitivities.” The whole circuit of the room—from futon to fridge, from window to bathroom and back—was a mere sixteen steps.
“We miss you, Sofo,” Katie whined as Maya asked, “Does Henneman have a pool? Have you fucked him yet?”
They were drunk. I knocked into a crate and a book popped out: The Other Side of Midnight. “Everyone’s got a pool, you douche.” I drew the salient distinction. “Henneman knows people. A lotta people. Playahs.”
Katie said, “What’s with the one-name shit. Scorsese. DeNiro. Henneman.” She chuckled. “You should make him call you Schneider.”
They screamed with laughter. Then I heard the familiar click of a lighter followed by pinched inhalations. I could see them collapsed on the couch, which we’d bought at Ikea and paired with Crate and Barrel lamps, Katie’s dad’s loveseat and a rug from Target. I remembered the weekend we’d put it together, how our boxy vanilla living room had come alive, like something from a magazine.
Nostalgia swept over me. I imagined the cloud of weed mixing with tonight’s dinner experiment—something August, with eggplant and tomatoes—and added untruthfully, “He took me to Ammo, for blood-orange fizzes.” I’d read about these, and the stars who drank them, in L.A. Magazine. “We sat next to Liev Shreiber and Naomi Watts.”
It was so easy to impress them.
They told me about the algae bloom in the lake, the restaurant emptied out with all the students gone, the waiter who’d temporarily taken my place, an exchange student hilariously named Marco Poppodopolis.
While they cracked each other up, I plopped back on the futon. Through the wall, someone cried out in Korean. My apartment smelled like my burrito from Chipotle. I imagined my feet propped beside theirs on the Parsons table, Minkie, the cat, rubbing against them.
“Fuck,” Katie mumbled. “He’s got a slug. On a toothpick. Fuck!” Bourdain.
Maya sounded sleepy, and far away. “Too late. He ate it.”
The new cleaning people arrived—from an agency called Best Hollywood Sparkle—in a Honda Civic stenciled with a logo of a maid in surgical scrubs. Three middle-aged, Spanish-speaking ladies dressed as nurses racketed in with machines, like an army hired to scour away all traces of Rosalba. With the dogs barking in their crates, the team stayed only two hours, leaving a superficial, bleach-scented neatness.
I made sure Henneman caught me doing extra clean-up. Embarrassed, he said, “Sofe, that’s unnecessary. Stop.”
I stepped around him to wheel his trashcans to the curb, savoring my knowledge of what was in them.
In the heat my shirt stuck to me, a heat dry enough to crack skin but so much nicer than New York’s, that hellish fug. Indoors, the AC hit me like a song. The pool rippled through the windows.
One day when Henneman was out to lunch, I stripped and dove in, backstroking through the salt water as the dogs jostled at the screen. No more August rain. No more January ice. Turgid fog that fused morning and afternoon into one long undifferentiated numbness.
Henneman got busier. He seemed to have some new project in the pipes. I heard him murmuring on his cell. Talking to his secretary, Kimmie.
I spent more time with the dogs, whose skin problems were only getting worse. Outside, they scratched and scratched and tugged and tugged. Inside, they stank. Bobs hung in doorways and seemed confused about his purpose. Chuck sighed like a soldier reflecting on his glory years. Tio barked and humped and peed, standing over his puddles with a look I recognized. What are you going to do about it? Like Junie, that cockeyed girl from second grade.
One day, catching Henneman on the fly, I suggested calling the mobile groomer. (Didn’t the mobile detailer come every week to do his Caddy?) The groomer, a gentle giant named Alex, used a shampoo with a fruity scent the dogs rolled around to rub off. Even Chuck, usually so inert. Reaching to pat him when his back was turned, I realized why he jumped. He was practically deaf.
The fruity perfume lost the battle with rank Dog. I cranked the AC to high and sprayed lemon-scented Pledge. When I couldn’t stand it I drove to Whole Foods, where the parking lot rocked with BMWs driven by people my age, and the apples shone like jewels in their individual slots. With Henneman’s money, I bought myself a smoothie, a chicken wrap and some bulk granola. (My “stipend” was pathetic; I was always starving.)
Beside the bulk bins, someone had ripped off the pen for putting SKU numbers on twist ties.
“Borrow something to write with?” I asked, air-scribbling to illustrate for a shopper in a motor cart.
The woman, whose legs filled her stretch pants like sausages, asked daintily, “Do I know you? I don’t think so.” She threw the cart in reverse. “Get lost, Blondie.”
I went out for Korean barbeque alone and after a while started swiping Tinder pix. Late that night I met a guy at Duck Bar, followed him home to Culver City and drove back, wasted, with my underpants in my purse.
I dreamed of a thrashing ocean, a sky crackling with stars, Junie Riley, screaming from a sinking dinghy. Then Junie stood at my door, a bony seven-year-old in her Dodgers jersey and leggings. I knew what the leggings hid; Junie had shown me in the bathroom: slash marks from her father’s belt. With a dream’s logic, I abruptly saw both myself, paralyzed and cowering on the futon, and Junie knocking at my door, her loose eye wild. I tried to speak. Then sat up, realizing: the knocking was real. It was morning. Someone was actually at my door.
I stumbled to the peephole and saw a person in a lab coat. Thrusting her jaw out, she tucked her hands beneath her chin, closed her eyes and opened them. “No asleep! No asleep! You!” She shook a finger. Stepped back to demonstrate walking around. Pointed down—to the floor below?
Apparently, I’d stayed up late making noise, torturing this “neighbor” I’d never seen.
“I’m sorry,” I sang through the flimsy door.
The woman’s face loomed.
“No asleep! No asleep!”
“I said I’m sorry!” I screamed.
Hungover, I waited till the last minute to walk the dogs, hooking on leashes and pulling them into eighty-five-degree heat at 4:30 in the afternoon. Today the air felt swampy and close, hemmed in by layered clouds. An idle wind stirred. It felt like rain but it never rained here during summer. The dogs tried to tug me back. They did their weed plop by the road.
I was tired. Impatient. Wanted to go home and hit the futon with Dorritos.
Unwilling to give Tio the satisfaction, I pretended to savor the wind in the pepper trees, the sun breaking in brittle shards. I lit a cigarette. Snapped pictures of a squirrel inching down a pepper trunk, a Ferrari shooting a curve.
The driver, young, long-haired, wearing wraparound shades, was a possible celeb.
Texting Katie, I felt a yank from my snarl of leashes.
Later, the moment played and played in my mind, like a time-lapse car crash. Tio suddenly bolting after the squirrel. The shock of sudden pain (he’d bitten me!) that made me drop the leashes, then try to stomp them with a foot.
“Tio!” I screamed, pulling the other dogs up. “Tio!”
The Dodgers jersey, as wide and long as a dress, was a hand-me-down. (There were nine kids, it was rumored, in Junie’s family.) “Martinez 48” was emblazoned on the back, and she wore it with a turtleneck and leggings through which her knee joints poked.
Two of the sinks were clogged with paper towels and some bad kid had left the water on. Junie, who’d been in the bathroom first, quickly shut off the taps, and I wondered if the bad kid might be Junie.
She’d looked funny, standing there, her shoes untied, eye rolling like it did when teachers called on her.
I felt the other eye fix on me.
Did I want to see something?
We weren’t friends. Of course we weren’t. Junie, with her creepy eyes and weird clothes. No one brushed her hair. Made her lunch. (Once, she’d brought a can of green beans and a spoon.) She lost her books and got zeros. She brought her new glasses—for show-and-tell—and lost them.
That morning, she’d brought a white-and-silver ballerina pin to share. When she got up to show it, she kind of froze up like a scared rabbit.
Kids laughed at her.
Mrs. Banks was encouraging. “What makes this special? It’s so pretty, Junie. Did someone give it to you? Was it a present?”
In the bathroom, Junie pushed her leggings up to show me—the flaming, angry, fresh marks. She explained about the belt, her dad, watching me with a twitchy focus. Curious. To see what I saw.
I don’t know what I said. What could I say? I just remember that once Junie went back out to recess, I did something unthinkable. I sneaked back into the empty class and stole the pin from Junie’s desk.
The blue Jeep, loaded with boys in football jerseys, swerved but didn’t stop, just bumped, dipped and roared off, careening like a clown car, as Tio went airborne, sailing above the road, tumbling noiselessly, as insubstantial as a toy dropped into the rough beside the pavement.
On one of Henneman’s buttery sofas, I relived that astonishing sight, crying like Rosalba had, without restraint, while stammering out half-truths. “He bolted! One minute he was there, the next gone! I couldn’t catch him!”
Poor Henneman. Cradling his phone, pacing in his socks, waiting for someone to call with something solid. Tio was found. Safe. “Thank God he’s tagged,” he kept saying, “and chipped. If someone brings him to a vet...”
My bitten hand throbbed. Resentment choked me, tangling with guilt and neediness. How little claim I had on his attention. “I had the other dogs!” I wailed. “I didn’t know what to do!”
He paced, wishing I’m sure that I would shut the fuck up. Until now, he’d kept our encounters light. He’d never asked me much about me, an effort, I’d thought, to avoid any implication of harassment, which can hang on very little. Nor had he mentioned, if he’d noticed, the disturbances of his things, which I’d tried to put back as I’d found them, taking only two Xanax and a polaroid: “Stevie” at bat, his naked stick arms raised.
When Henneman sat down across from me, I noticed these arms, bulked up now. Inked with a city skyline. Tribal scritches. Exuding heat.
I wondered if this was going to be our moment.
“Sofe,” he began uncertainly. “You’re sweet. You try. I appreciate that.” He scrubbed his chin with a fist. “I didn’t think this through. It’s my fault, not yours.”
His eyes filled, unexpectedly. Surprised, and touched, I moved toward him.
He didn’t fight for me, any more than he had for Rosalba. His interest was all in my head—in my fantasies that he would share his network, ask me to stay on past summer.
After the fact, I came to say about our relationship, it was business. Which also describes the way I pretended to like his dogs and track down the best produce for his smoothies. If doing something made me look good, I did it. But honestly? That night, I felt stabbed, wounded, as if I’d handed him my hidden self, my heart, and he’d tossed them back like nothing. That was how much I lived then at the center of my world. His pain? Didn’t matter. If it had, I might have come clean and snuffed out the misery of his hope.
As darkness stained the windows and his cell stayed quiet, he asked, “Shouldn’t you put something on that?” My hand, tattooed with Tio’s teeth.
He was trying to be nice.
I got up and left. Went home and packed, took an Uber to the airport and, zonked on Xanax, watched Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse on the plane. I didn’t care about Henneman in his house, waiting and waiting for a call that wouldn’t come.
They picked me up in Katie’s Subaru, a winter rat with a rusted floor through which spots of highway showed. At Arrivals, jumping out with the engine running so it wouldn’t stall, they crushed me from both sides. Katie drove. Maya lit a joint. By the time we got to the apartment I was baked. Grateful that they didn’t ask much. That they seemed to understand. It was enough that I was back.
I returned to waitressing. Remembered the thrill of having cash wadded in my pocket. Sleeping in a wide, comfortable bed.
When I finally unpacked, I stashed “Stevie’s” picture with Junie’s pin, under the false bottom of a box where I kept my bracelets and my graduation-from-highschool watch.
At the end of my first night back at the restaurant, Clem, our manager, gave a send-off for Marco, my stand-in for the summer. Marco was hot, a fact my roommates, surprisingly, had withheld. After a shitload of Chianti, I invited him home, which was, luckily, walking distance.
In my big, wide bed, to the sounds of Katie and Maya and their boyfriends watching TV, we rolled around awhile without completely sealing the deal. The apartment was overheated. We were both tired and a little shy.
I made us some of the twiggy tea that was always in the Ithaca kitchen. We propped on pillows drinking it, and Marco slipped in and out of sleep while I told him about L.A., where he’d never been but claimed to want to visit. I described the casually rich people, the mirror-spotlessness of cars, the emptiness of beaches, all accessible to the public, and the cult of ugly rescue dogs. I told him about my boss, who he’d never heard of, and who advertised his vegan purity, then ate junk food and took drugs. I had the goods on him, I said.
“Goods?” Sleepy Marco didn’t get it. His English was stumbling and cute.
That, and his puppyish sensuality, enfolding arms and smoky eyes, straining to stay open, prompted me to keep talking. I described nights in Koreatown, days in the hilltop house, Rosalba and the little shit who’d brought us down. I told him about the Jeep that didn’t stop. Knowing I’d never see this guy again—in a week he was going home to Greece to look for work, good luck—I described the small, bloody bag of guts, hard to recognize for what it was, but for the one eye, stuck open. Coming on it in the weeds, I’d kicked it over a cliff.
By then, in my too-hot, girlish room (a poster of Sunflowers—how embarrassing—on the wall), I was feeling wide-awake and sober. My own words rattled me. The coldness of what I’d done. Of course, confessing to Marco wasn’t really a confession. My summer would linger in me; I’d come back to it often, like a sore tooth, whether or not I opened the box. This, I understood, was who I was, and could be again, when circumstances were right.
Still, I had to shake Marco, who was already dozing off again, and demand his judgment. What did he think of what I’d said? Was he shocked?
He brushed my hair off my face and kissed me, gently at first, then more enthusiastically. “You a good. Nice,” he whispered. “I say, I like this girl. I say, I like this ass. She’s a big. Nice ass.”
It had to do. For now.
I pushed my smile against him, holding on, as if for a few hours, he could keep me afloat.
A Los Angeles writer, I have covered gardens, design, food and interesting people for numerous magazines and newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. Recent essays of mine (part of a collection-in-progress about my mother) have appeared in O Magazine and Catamaran, and a third is upcoming in Crab Orchard Review. I had a short story in the Autumn issue of the Maine Review, and another story is currently featured on the Streetlight Voices podcast. Some of my other writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Tin House Open Bar and the Virginia Quarterly Review.