It had been winter dark for a few hours, so it seemed later than it was. It was that in-between time of the evening, when you could just go home or maybe stay for a few more drinks and see what happens. The dyke bar wasn’t busy yet, a few older butches leaned around the pool table talking about work and women just like any other place. I was the youngest in the room, sitting at the bar with my fake ID hot in my pocket, but the old woman behind it hadn’t asked when I ordered a Rainier. It wasn’t really fake, just stolen. I’d swiped it from the hutch at work where the servers stashed their cigarettes and car keys. I felt a little bad about it because the girl I’d taken it from had pinned a sweet, genuinely friendly note to the corkboard in the break room, asking had anyone seen it?
I sipped my beer and worked on the halfway finished crossword I’d picked out of the pile of newspapers next to the door. The daytime bartender sat a couple stools down from me at the end of the bar, his shift drink in front of him while he counted out his tips and settled up his till. Eventually he pulled his wallet from his back pocket and tucked the bills inside, then knocked back the rest of his whiskey and walked behind the bar and put the zippered bank bag of cash somewhere underneath. He was slim and not much older than me, his faded Levis worn thin in the crotch and butt. A big Western belt buckle peeked out from underneath the hem of his tight black Tina Turner concert tee. He poured himself another whiskey and came back around to his seat and smiled at me and said Oh Lord what a long day and then we just started chatting like people do in bars; about not much but friendly enough. He had the old lady bartender pour him another, and he bought me a beer too. I went ahead and bought myself a whiskey to go with it because it was too early to check into the shelter anyway. We talked about Tina Turner and how it was the best concert he’d ever seen, even though it was in the Tacoma Dome. He was from Ellensburg, originally, he said, but aside from the cowboys who came for the Fourth of July Rodeo, there was no reason for him to stay, so he’d come to Seattle. Like Dorothy goin’ to Oz he said, and I wondered what he meant by that.
He was a nice enough guy, at least nice enough to be working in a dyke bar, so when he told me his dog had puppies, five of them, I agreed to go with him and see them. His apartment was above the bar, two stories up. We walked out the back door of the bar and then went right back in through the alley door that led upstairs. Inside, the air felt slightly moldy, and smelled like cigarettes and bleach and tv dinners. I followed him down a narrow hall on a stringy trail of carpet until he stopped and took out his keys. The door was white once but now it was greyed with years of ghostlike handprints, and the tin room number 24 was nailed on a little crooked. When he put his key in the lock, he had to jiggle the worn doorknob a certain way before it turned.
Inside, a person could tell it had been an SRO, a bum hotel, with a tiny sink and a small shelf under a mirror on one wall. The other side of the room was a makeshift kitchen; a two burner electric hotplate and a small dorm room sized fridge sat on a rough wooden counter that looked like it was found in the alley and would have to do. The Murphy bed was down, and neatly made, but it felt weird to sit there so I just stood where I was. The only window looked towards the Space Needle; a reminder I was far from home.
The dog lay on a pile of pillows covered with a flowered quilt. She was brown and medium and no particular kind of dog at all. She looked up at the bartender and waggled her stumpy tail, then went back to mothering her puppies, licking them and arranging them with her nose while they nursed. Their little bodies, plump with milk, looked more like baby manatees than puppies.
He said Hi Mama Girl, and stroked her head and ears, then reached into the pile of pups and pulled one out for me to see. Her worried brown eyes watched him rise and she nudged the others closer together into the warm curve of her belly.
He passed me the puppy, it’s body so loose and boneless that it almost slid through my hands. I held him up to my face and looked at him closely, close enough to smell his earthy puppy breath. Little drops of foamy milk clung to the tiny whiskers sprouting from his chin and lips, and his nose was pink and damp. He was perfectly still, and I stared into his cloudy blue eyes for a long minute until my own eyes felt hot and sharp and I turned away. Mama Girl watched him hanging above her in a stranger’s hands, and shuffled a little on the quilt, maybe considering saving him but afraid to leave the others. I closed my eyes and rubbed the pup’s smooth fur against my cheek and breathed his smell, then gave him back to the bartender who put him down with the rest. Mama Girl tongued him clean while he searched for a nipple and went back to suckling like nothing ever happened.
The bartender asked if I wanted to go back downstairs and have another drink, and I said sure, and as we left the apartment I noticed that the door hadn’t fully closed and I could see Mama Girl through the open crack. I followed him down the hall to the stairs and as he descended ahead of me, I changed my mind. I told him I wasn’t feeling well, and thanks for showing me the puppies, but I was going to go home. We said goodbye and he walked down the stairs and I heard the music get loud as he went in the back door to the bar.
I turned around and walked back to the apartment, my chest tight and so full of mad and sad that it felt like my heart was pumping nothing but tears. Quietly, I pushed open the door. Mama Girl looked up from the litter, suspicious, but didn’t get up. I looked at the puppies and thought about taking mine with me, but he was snuggled warm and safe in with the others and I knew he was better off where he was. I stood quietly and looked around the room. On a small table next to the bed sat a bracelet made of cheap silver, probably from the market, the kind that turns your skin green. It looked like it was supposed to be Indian, and had tiny little bells that tinkled quietly when I picked it up. Mama Girl watched me with her sad dark eyes while I slipped it inside my bag. I left the apartment, careful to close the paint-chipped door all the way and turn the knob until I heard the latch click. Outside in the night, I could smell the puppy on my hands as I warmed them with my breath. It seemed later than it was, I thought, and I turned quickly down the alley, hoping to make it to the shelter before they locked the doors.
Collin McFadyen is a Queer writer living in North Portland with their wife, two sons, and a wicked cute terrier. They have been published at Subjectiv, Tealight Press, Kissing Dynamite, and others. Follow them on Twitter @crayonsdontrun and on their website.