DOG WITH A COLLAR by Emma Marks 5/12/2015
I thought Tennesee would be hot in February. We had spent six months in Michigan,
living in a neighborhood haunted by a confused group of migrating crows. We were ready to
leave now after the capricious winter. I was raised in the midwest, only ever venturing south one
April to paint houses in Louisiana. I reasoned that anywhere in the amalgam I considered The
South would provide relief.
On the ride through Kentucky, I anticipated our arrival by retrieving my shorts from the
bottom of our shared backpack. I imagined sending a picture to my parents of myself, lanky
limbs exposed under shorts and a tank top, posing in some expanse of land covered in sun-
browned grass: an iconically rural-brown backdrop which I was sure Leonard's hitchhiking
cousin, Libby, could provide.
We rode with a gruff bluffer named Rick. He had posted a ride on Craigslist from Ann
Arbor to Florida, offering stops along the way. When he picked us up, he was toting a last
minute addition - a trailer containing his motorcycle - adding about one ton of drag on the truck.
Our budget was rigid. We had already accounted for the cost of half of Rick's gas. I'd
even taken the time to calculate the average mileage for used pickup trucks to get a better
estimate, during one anxiety-fueled spell of insomnia. That projection was scrambled
somewhere in the number-soup of our ledger.
I fretted over that ledger in the months I spent as a waitress, whereas Leonard filled it
up. He made large deposits from bartending, and made withdraws for bar tabs.
Rick's scaley, bloated face was abbreviated by the rearview mirror, where most of our
interaction took place. He spoke at length - as most drivers do - about his days as an alligator
wrestler, muscle pageant winner, and player. This all took place, of course, when he was
younger, and married to Miss Something, 2005. His current girlfriend made chainmaille. He was
going to Florida to propose to her.
With our ledgered calculations proven optimistic by Rick's trailer, we resisted honoring
the initial 50/50 agreement. Rick offered, "Maybe you could call your parents for money." Then,
he made a phone call. That was enough to keep us quiet. We vaguely faced each other in the
jump seats, subconsciously avoiding eye contact.
A few minutes into the phone conversation, we came up, and Rick loudly assumed to the
person on the phone that we'd pay for the next tank of gas.
At the next station, Leonard squirmed out of his seat, hopped down from the cab, and
swiped his card at the pump. Rick walked off, still talking on the phone. I remained seated. No
sense in slowing us down. I would avoid buying anything to drink to try and offset the extra gas
expenses one Clamato at a time.
While I scanned the lot for an absent Rick, I spotted a tail in some tall, iconically brown
grass. When Leonard returned, I pointed out to him the dog. It was thin but spry, with wiry fur
and an alertness throughout his body.
One of our goals while traveling was to pick up a dog along the way. The dog would
serve as a physical reminder to us of this trip. A time when we were all running into our vast
potential with the fearlessness we hoped this trip would prove. The same gusto that would
summon our creative careers and eventually afford us an ironically expensive plated collar for
our quadrupedal souvenier.
As Leonard and I made our way through the field, our targeted tail tucked and
disappeared. Four footsteps faded toward the woods behind the gas station.
Just then, Rick appeared, shouting, "Train's leaving if you wanna be on it."
Once in Knoxville, Leonard's fever climaxed, and he walked zombified toward his
cousin's bed, where he would remain unconscious for the better part of our stay.
I stood on the porch with Libby. The unsatisfactory temperature of Tennessee sank in
like a failing test grade. Instead of sending my fantasized photo of brown grass behind pale,
sunlit legs, I settled for a few weather beaten crocuses.
Libby went upstairs to get her cigarettes, and I asked if she could bring me a beer. She
responded, in a surprisingly thick southern accent for a New Jersey native, "Nah, the fines down
here are big for public drinkin."
She was our ideal, a true ex-pat of middle America. After graduation from a private high
school, she had a psychotic break and locked herself in a closet for three days. When she
emerged, she ran west with as much money as she could finagle and remained at large until
settling in Tennessee to deal acid door-to-door and become a writer.
After we'd had a smoke, I went upstairs and into the bedroom. I felt Leonard's familiarly
clammy forehead, usually cold from sulfites or low blood sugar, now hot with an immobilizing
fever. Libby's two dogs bogarted the rest of the bed, and their various, layered urine stains
made the floor uninviting. In the living room, I found a broken throne propping up the coat rack,
which was simply a severed tree branch. A stale pool of water creeped beneath the armchair,
emanating from the bathtub.
I sat in the sunken chair to write down the directions to a nearby grocery store, as Libby
dictated them. Her younger dog, a yellow lab mix, interrupted me by nudging his head under my
dehydrated looking hands.
Scratching the white patch of fur between his eyes, I asked, "Where'd you get him?"
"I found him here," Libby said, "He was just a puppy, wandering around with a bunch of
strays. His collar didn't have tags, but no one leaves food out for a dog with a collar, so I took
The dog started to beg for more so I shooed him away, and finished the directions I'd
scratched on my palm. I thanked Libby, and headed out with my shoplifting bag in pursuit of hot
toddy and chicken soup ingredients.
When I got back, Libby was at school and Leonard was sitting up in the bed, still damp
with sweat but with more color in his face. I unpacked the groceries on the bed in front of him.
"So I got enough food for the week, I think, and I managed to lift some whiskey,"
"I'm done," Leonard said, ashamed but authoritative.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I'm done with this trip. I'm sick and I want to go home."
And home was waiting for us. It would haunt us like a leash, but we would keep on
pulling the whole way west.