Cleo landed the job by telling the story of her childhood dog, Ruxpin, in the interview. Rux was a Great Dane that her father found at a shelter. He had been beaten and probably starved. He had one perfectly round cigarette burn on his hip that Cleo had always considered his second belly button. The story was mostly that Rux was trouble at first, swallowing and regurgitating big bowls of kibble, scared he might never see food again. But he warmed up. He let Cleo and her sister ride around on his brindled back. He developed a strong attachment to their mother, and would try to curl his large body onto her small lap. And one time he even saved them from a house fire. He rounded them up with frantic barks and then patrolled them all out onto the lawn like a drill sergeant.
“He saved our lives.”
“That’s remarkable,” Joyce, who owned the store, commented. And so, Cleo was hired on the spot and encouraged to offer up that story with some frequency. “Anybody new. Any street traffic.”
The store was called Polly, named for Darwin’s pampered Jack Russell Terrier, and they sold trinkets and accessories, vitamins and supplements, and high-end food for dogs. Inside, it was brightly lit and well laid out, the walls dripping with pastel-coloured chew toys. The food was propped up on reclaimed barn board shelving. The vitamins, shampoos and breath sprays were hidden away in expertly curated antique cupboards.
Cleo split the schedule with a girl called Maggie. She was an actress, born in Winnipeg, and she dressed as though she were expecting to be asked to perform in a horse show at any time. Stretch khakis, large blazers. She urged Cleo to look for all of her bit parts in teenage dramas and soon-to-be-cancelled cop shows.
“Did you see me as the border agent?” she’d ask, her eyes bulging out of her skull with such eagerness that Cleo thought of Lilybell, the Boston Terrier who came into the store on Saturdays. So overbred for that wet-eyed look of adoration, one of Lilybell’s eyes had actually burst right out of the socket.
“Sorry,” Cleo always said. “I missed that one.”
Cleo learned early that she was not a gifted salesperson. Luckily, Polly drew in rich, young professionals, and they required no coaxing when it came to dropping money. Careers had impeded their spawning. Many came in on post-workday jogs, their dogs attached umbilically with wraparound nylon sport leashes. Running shoes the colour of fresh fruit.
“One organic frozen yogurt,” they’d pay on a card pulled from an armband wallet and then squeeze the paper cone out onto the floor for the dog to ignore and Cleo to clean up. Once a week, a manicured woman with a Schnoodle would spend more than Cleo’s rent on dog sweaters knit by women in Guatemala.
Maggie, however, was excellent at sales. She could convince anybody that the most ridiculous product was integral to their dog’s life.
“Well, what are you feeding Cheyenne now?” she would ask in a way that was clearly rhetorical. She knew it was something cheap and irresponsible and made out of sawdust, and the customer would go home with 200 dollars worth of dehydrated beef stomach.
But Maggie’s best tactic was Nico, her Alaskan Malamute cross. With a wave of the arm and, “this is my dog,” Maggie could hook anyone to buy anything: doggie bath robes, LED lit boomerangs, kelp treats.
“I just feed her well and make sure she knows who’s in charge, right Nico?” And, infuriatingly, the dog would rise to an alert stance. Some customers hired trainers to come to their houses daily, and one had paid an unfathomable sum to have her dog sent to upstate New York to be trained by monks. A dog like Nico gave them hope.
Maggie told everyone that Nico had been rescued from a First Nations reserve. When Cleo tried to ask her exactly what that meant, she learned only that one of their regulars, a dog named Camper, was from the place. “Oh, are they related?”
“Ugh, god no. That dog has some serious attitude problems. Not that she ever had a chance, with Jim as an owner.” Jim was Cleo’s favourite customer. He wore bright, Hawaiian print shirts and closely resembled Brian Wilson at the height of his steak and cocaine days.
“I like Jim.”
“Jim seems nice, but he never buys anything.”
Maggie told Cleo that Jim had psychological problems much worse than his social awkwardness and muttering. About a month later, he began leaving messages on the Polly answering machine at all hours. His voice sounded different, like it had been pumped through his larynx at a higher speed. He wasn’t saying anything confrontational; he was just making requests for products to be put aside. Duck down beds, piles of chew toys in amusing shapes: ham bone, banana, pizza pie.
“Is Jim manic?” Cleo asked Maggie, unsure of her wording.
“Oh, no, that’s not Jim. That’s Eric. That’s his other personality, or whatever. Eric spends money.” Maggie and Joyce told Cleo to oblige the messages and sell the selected products to Eric, if and when he ever came in.
Luckily, when she saw him again, it was Jim. He looked more worn down than usual, shuffling around the store in his moccasins at a glacial pace.
“Just looking around,” he said. It’s what he always said. He rarely made a purchase and, though he was shy, Cleo got the sense that his trips to the store were mostly for the company. She’d noticed him up the street in a record store performing a similar ritual of browsing. Cleo ventured out from behind the counter to offer the dog stale treats. Camper skipped over, ate them with fervor.
“What’s in them treats, by the way? Usually she don’t eat this crap.”
“Are you sure you want to know?”
“It’s bull penis.”
“Yikes. Well, Camper usually prefers Burger King.” Cleo laughed, and Jim went back to shuffling. He scuffed one lap around the floor and came back to the counter.
“Hey — has Eric been around when you been working here?”
Cleo struggled to swallow her Frappuccino. “Oh, no. I haven’t seen him.”
“Okay, good. Because if he did, I just wanted to tell you and Joyce and the other girl that I’m sorry you had to deal with him.”
“Yeah. Eric, that guy spends all my money.” He gazed down at Camper. “Gets the hydro cut off and all that.” Cleo remembered Maggie bragging about selling Eric a wall-sized portrait of a Chow-chow.
Jim continued to stand in the store, like maybe he was waiting to say something but he couldn’t quite work his way up to it. Cleo was also rewording statements in her own head. She wasn’t sure, from the way he spoke, how Jim conceived of Eric: a troublemaking roommate? A pesky twin brother? Or more like those dolls with two faces fused together — one face smiling, the other bent into a sob.
Jim started to shuffle his feet again, and when Cleo looked up, she could tell he was growing agitated. His breathing was heavy and his face mottled. Not for the first time, she wished she were the kind of person who might say something comforting.
“You alright?” was all she could muster, her voice cracking.
Camper, however, was hard at work. She flickered back and forth between Jim’s feet, a look on her face so full of concern she seemed exhaustingly human. Jim set one foot slightly off the ground and Camper hopped over it like a hurdle. He did the same with his opposite foot, and Camper rose over it with extra flair. She had invented this game to cheer Jim up, and as she swerved around his body, he seemed to relax. She made slow, show-dog circles until a smirk came over Jim’s face.
Then Camper simply dropped her weight against Jim’s swollen leg, an armless hug. He ruffled her ears for one long moment and then sighed, like he’d just woken.
“You have a good day now,” he said to Cleo as he ambled outside. Camper’s eyes were still fixed on him, still monitoring his mood as they trotted down the street.
Maggie came in for her shift just as Jim was making his way out. She forced a smile that looked like a fat worm sitting across her face. When he was gone, she asked, “Was that Eric?”
“Did he buy anything?”
“He did not.”
Maggie looked thoughtful as she peeled off Nico’s leash. “Animal control really needs to intervene there,” she said, but Cleo was ignoring her. She was busy handing Nico a handful of treats, observing the way her panting mouth seemed to form a real smile.
Cleo never told the story of Teddy Ruxpin to Maggie, or to anyone after Joyce, for that matter. This was partly because she did not care to offer it up as a contrived point of contact. But mostly it was because she had left out the ending. The part where, in a few years, Rux lost his novelty and became more of a nuisance. A chore Cleo and her sister fought over. Eventually he spent his time forgotten in the backyard shredding sticks. Until one day, their widowed neighbour took an interest. She would drive Rux out to the country for scenic walks. She took him to the vet to get his moles removed. And eventually, she’d done so much for him that both households understood it would be best if Rux went to live with her. She bought him an oscillating fan and a feather top mattress that took up the better part of her living room.
Cleo understood that the last half of Rux’s life didn’t make her or her family look too great, which is why she left it out. But really, it was her favourite part of the story. She loved the thought of them, the old woman and the horse-shaped dog, carrying out their twilight years basking in each other’s company. They walked alike, a hiccup on one side from a bad hip. After he moved, Cleo would see Rux out on the street and he would greet her like an old friend who has suddenly become famous: happy to see her but busy, distracted, and luminously proud of his new prestige.
DANICA FOGARTY is a graduate of the University of Guelph’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing program. She now lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia with her partner Dan and two cats.