Sistahs

By Catherine Alexander

Sprawled out on a beach lounge chair, Crystal Sherman wore a white bikini, a choker of red beads and blue mirrored sunglasses. Buxom, yet skinny as a rake, she reminded me of Lolita except for the knee-high black leather boots. I first encountered her in the parking lot of the Birch Apartments where I had recently moved.

“Hey slut!” she said in a southern drawl. “You my new next-door neighbor?”

“Beg your pardon?”

She yanked off her sunglasses. “I asked if you’re my neighbor. Something wrong with that?”

“No. But don’t call me a slut.”

“Why not? Any woman worth a damn is a slut.”

“Amen,” I said, trying a different approach.

We introduced ourselves while she massaged her face, arms and upper thighs in

baby oil.

“I hope you don’t get sunburned,” I said.

“Not with my skin, sistah. Got tough growing up in the South.”

Leathery as her boots, Crystal’s skin looked like polished oak. A blue streak that matched her sunglasses ran through her platinum hair, tied up into a messy bun.

*

I’d searched for months for a rental around Atlantic City that allowed dogs. Finally found this apartment with a fenced yard in back that ran along the complex. Little as he was, Sparky could be a barker. Worse yet, an ankle biter. Naturally, I didn’t disclose those little details on my application. West Highland Terriers can be clever, courageous, independent, and bossy. But who could resist his pure-white coat, straight up ears and wagging tail? Not me.

*

Crystal lit a Marlboro and went on to describe quirky tenants in the Birch Apartments, as if she weren’t one of them.

Aaron in number five had a motorcycle that made a lot of noise but never went anywhere. He’d be out in the parking lot at all hours revving up an engine that stuttered and backfired. Dorothy in four threatened to kill him. She was a music teacher and small-time orchestra conductor who smoked marijuana. Apparently, you could smell it for blocks. One night she went after Aaron and tried to poke out his eyes with a baton.

John in number three insisted on filling the recycle bin with discarded furniture. Once he crammed a recliner inside the dumpster by hacking it with an ax.

That left me in number one, next to Crystal in two. The walls were wafer-thin, which didn’t seem too bad during the day. But as nights followed, I felt as if I were in bed with her and someone else who sounded like a howling cat. I couldn’t tell if the voice came from a male or female, but I knew it wasn’t Crystal. I heard music-conductor Dorothy complain that Crystal’s dissonant voice reminded her of early Stravinsky.

In no time, Sparky displayed his old tricks: barking at anyone in his purview, which meant the backyard. He owned it. Any tenant who dared to reach the dumpsters got a barrage of barks more like a Rottweiler than my little Westie.

The first incident involved John in three attempting to pitch a microwave into the bin. Sparky’s bark warned him. When that didn’t work, the dog tried ankle biting. As John tried to kick him away, the microwave crashed to the cement. Sparky darted under a rhododendron bush.

Crystal happened to observe the scene and came over to pet Sparky on his good behavior. “It’s about time that sonofabitch John got what he deserved,” she said. “He’d probably try to shove a car in the bin.”

She tossed the pillows away and plopped down on my couch. “Nice place you have here. Mine’s a mess. Loaded with boxes I haven’t even opened since I moved in. You’re all unpacked already.”

Sparky jumped on her lap. “What a good dawg,” she said. “Next time leap up and bite John’s ass. He’s part of the reason I got so much stuff in my place. The recycle bin is always full of crap from him and I can’t throw nothin’ in there.

“Poopsie, woopsie,” she said to Sparky, as she scratched his ears. “You and me, kid, are gonna be friends.” Sparky then rolled over for a belly rub.

She nuzzled her head into Sparky’s white fur, and then I heard sniffles.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

She lifted her head. Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Natalie, my boyfriend Duke is an asshole. He’s been giving me shit lately.”

I wanted to say it sure doesn’t sound like it. Instead, I asked for more information.

“Got any tissues?” she asked.

I brought her a box of Kleenex.

After giving her nose a snort, she said, “He kicks the hell out of my butt, just for fun. Then he’s sorry, buys me roses, we make up, and get it on.”

“I don’t understand why you forgive him so easily.”

“Neither do I, sistah. Guess I’m just a stupid broad.”

“I don’t think so. Maybe you feel trapped in the relationship. And it probably feels good when you make up.”

“Yeah, you got it. He’s a soul fuck.”

“Pardon?”

“Oh, you know, he puts everything into it, so to speak. And he howls like a cat.”

“I know. I mean I know how a cat can howl.”

She hugged Sparky and set him on the floor. “Sistah, I gotta go. Lover boy’s due soon and I better be fixin’ some grub.”

A week later Dorothy pounded on my door. Sparky had dug up and devoured ten of her daffodil bulbs. How could a thirteen-pound Westie eat ten bulbs? I picked him up, grabbed my car keys, and left for the vet, leaving Dorothy yelling, “If you don’t tie up that varmint, I’m reporting you to the landlord and you’ll be out of here pronto!”

The Urgent Care vet worked fast, and in no time Sparky had upchucked every last toxic bulb.

After bringing Sparky home, I knew I had to find a solution to his antics before I got an eviction notice. The dog would bark if he were leashed to the fence. So in back of my unit I installed a two-foot mesh fence, pulled very tight and zip-tied to stakes in the ground. At first, Sparky seemed content being penned. But as I glanced out the window, I saw him take three steps backward, run up to the mesh fence and sail over it. I ran after him, looking everywhere, even under the rhododendron. I knew he wouldn’t go far.

Soon John marched into my place and flung Sparky into my arms. The dog had nosed open John’s screen door, carrying a turd which he dropped on the carpet. John then handed me the small plastic bag as evidence.

From then on I leashed up the malfeasant and walked him in the backyard. But he continually barked. On the street, he lurched on the leash and wanted to attack whatever scared him, including a paper bag.

In the house though, no problem, unless Dorothy or John crossed the yard. He flew to the window and let them have it.

Crystal continually defended Sparky and me. We became allies against our neighbors. She incensed them by tanning in the parking lot. I wouldn’t consider a bark collar to shock my poor baby into submission.

Enter the landlord, a hairy guy with a front tooth missing. “I’ve heard complaints about your dog barking, shitting in the yard, biting people and getting into someone’s unit.”

“I clean up after him immediately. There’s no poop in the back yard.”

“Oh, no? He brought some into unit three. Now where do you suppose that came from?”

“Must’ve been some other dog. I’m scrupulous about cleaning up after Sparky.”

“Look, I agreed you could have a dog because you promised he was quiet and wouldn’t leave crap in the yard. Now I’m warning you. Stop that dog from barking, keep him on leash and get rid of that ugly mesh thing in back. Building your own fence isn’t allowed, Natalie.”

What to do? I sure as hell wasn’t giving up Sparky or my apartment. This problem called for a radical approach. So I sent him to obedience school. More like doggie boot camp for two weeks.

Came home with a reformed dog, a no-shock collar and a home video, which featured what Sparky had learned: down, stay, sit, leave it, quiet, and come. Plus a book entitled How to Teach Your Dog to Respect You. I needed that.

Crystal came over to see the results. “Poopsie, you aren’t the same.” Then he jumped on her. “Good, honey child,” she said.

“Wait a minute, Crystal. You’ve got to watch Sparky in this video.”

Afterwards, she waxed indignant. “They’ve turned your dog into a robot. He’s lost his soul. And what’s that thing around his neck? A shock collar? How could you do this?”

“It’s not a shock collar, it beeps and vibrates.”

“Bull shit. You believe that?”

“That’s what they told me. And now that he behaves, we won’t have complaints from John and Dorothy.”

“Those commandoes will find something else to criticize. That’s just the way they operate. And poor Poopsie isn’t Poopsie anymore. He’s a puppet!”

“Crystal, I had to do something. This way we’ll have a peaceful existence.”

“And a dog turned zombie.”

I scratched my head. “You’re not making sense. Wolves are dogs that run in packs and have a hierarchy. I’m now the alpha dog. Sparky, the omega. So we will have order. No barking, no ankle biting. Hallelujah!”

Crystal scowled. “First of all, wolves are wild animals. Dogs are pets. They need to be petted and spoiled. Not broken like a horse.”

“Broken? Hardly. Just taught some manners.”

“That’s your opinion.” She kissed Sparky and stormed out.

I told Sparky to sit. He made it halfway. “Forget it,” I said.

Later that week I saw Duke march out of Crystal’s back door. Who else would it be? Tall and lean with an abundance of facial hair, he glared at me and turned away. That’s when Sparky lunged at Duke, and I lost control of the leash. The chase began in the back and ended up in the front parking lot where Crystal was sunning. Then Sparky leaped into her lounge chair and began licking her face. Duke jumped into a black Toyota Tundra with gigantic tires and roared off.

“Sparky,” I yelled, “come!”

“Don’t listen to her, Poopsie,” she said in her southern drawl. “You can sit on Auntie Crystal’s lap any time.” He nuzzled into the towel she had fluffed for him.

I sat on the end of the beach chair with my head in my hands.

“Don’t look so forlorn, sistah. Sparky’s just fine. Glad he chased that bastard off. I’m through with him.”

Thank goodness, I thought.

In the hot New Jersey days that followed, Sparky became less obedient and I mislaid the instruction book. Or Sparky ate it.

For one thing, I let him out in the yard unleashed. That way I could sit in close proximity to the air conditioner with a cold glass of Chardonnay.

John must have been doing the same thing when Sparky stuck his nose in his place again and dropped a cat turd on the carpet (probably from John’s cat). Didn’t he know that dogs think cat feces are a delicacy? Sparky just wanted to share his bounty.

Somehow John didn’t see it that way. I heard the ruckus and dashed to see John, wearing only his briefs, chase Sparky around the backyard. Then splat, John fell on the grass. Sparky ran up and began to lick his balls like they were made of Alpo.

Crystal arrived at the same time from the front yard, holding up her bikini top. “Sparky!” she yelled, “Come to Auntie Crystal!” He immediately jumped into her arms. By this time the bikini top had completely fallen off. So John was pantless and Crystal topless.

Once we were all back in our respective apartments, Crystal put on a T-shirt and shorts and came over. But she couldn’t stop laughing. Not a shred of embarrassment.

The landlord banged on my door later that evening. Without even a hello, he said, “YOU ARE OUT! I’m giving you thirty days. I’ve had it with that bastard weasel of a dog.” Then to Crystal, “You smutty bitch, you’re gone, too.”

“How dare you call me that!” said Crystal. She kicked him in the shin with her boot. “Next time I’m gonna aim a little higher. You’re a lazy slumlord. Why I’ve never been so insulted in my life! I’ve got a notion to report you. My rent has never been late. In fact, I’ve been an ideal tenant! And I’m not revving up my motorcycle at all hours!”

“No, you just advertise your body in front of the whole building! Have you drummed up any business yet?”

“You little fucker!” This time the boot hit his crotch. The landlord moaned and bent over. Crystal said, “I’m outta here and taking my sistah with me!”

“Your sister?” he asked, still moaning.

“Natalie here. Down south we call our special friends ‘sistah.’”

With that, the landlord straightened up, took off, slamming the door.

“Crystal,” I said, “what did you mean about taking me with you? I’m a librarian and just can’t pick up and leave. Besides, what would I do with all my furniture?”

“We’re sistahs, remember?”

“We couldn’t be more different. And where would we go?”

“Back to my little home sweet home in South Carolina, where there are plenty of libraries.”

“Little home?”

“Well not exactly. Veranda in front, huge living and dining rooms. A kitchen big enough for a couch. Four bedrooms, two baths upstairs. Plenty of space for Sparky to run around. What do you say to that?”

“Crazy. How can you possibly afford it?”

“It belonged to my aunt. She passed away four years ago. Left the house for me to look after. Plus some money.”

“Then why did you ever leave in the first place?”

“Duke convinced me. Met him at a bar. Dumb idea, I know. He’s a compulsive gambler. South Carolina casinos weren’t good enough. So he convinced me to come up to Atlantic City. We were only going to stay a little while. When he lost, he sponged off me, which was most of the time. Kept insisting we’d hit the jackpot eventually. Even get married.”

“I think you should go back to your home in South Carolina and forget all about Duke and Atlantic City.”

“What about you and Sparky?”

“Forget us, too.”

“I cain’t. I just cain’t. I’ve gotten so attached to you. Besides, Duke took the truck.”

“Maybe you can rent one.”

“Wait a minute! I just had a thought.”

“Not sure I want to hear it.”

“We’ll rent a motorhome. You can store your furniture. Have it shipped later. Your car, too. I knew there was a reason I never unpacked. What do you say?”

“I say you’re crazy. Now I better take Sparky for a walk.”

I thought about it for three days. Here I was with a good job, a 401K, and a disobedient dog. So naughty that I’ve been evicted. What should I do?

*

Aside from Sparky chewing a hunk of the motorhome upholstery, two flat tires, broken window washers and the rig sticking in second gear, driving down the coast was a breeze. We made it to Myrtle Beach in three days, despite delays.

Crystal neglected to tell me the house was bright pink and in need of repair. Lawn a foot high. Plumbing and electric problems. But Sparky could run around the huge fenced-in yard. I worked part-time in the library, learned to play golf. And Crystal still insisted in sunbathing on the veranda rather than the beach.

But no one ever complained. The nearest house was a mile away. And Sparky behaved, mostly.

 

Catherine Alexander, Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee, has published stories in 36 literary journals, including North Atlantic Review, Rosebud, Bryant Literary Review, Rockhurst Review and won “Jurors’ Choice” in Spindrift. National Public Radio has aired her work. Her story, “Backyards,” was performed by Jorja Fox (Sara Sidle in TV’s CSI) in a Los Angeles Word Theatre production. She has taught fiction and memoir at Edmonds Community College, the University of Washington, writing conferences, senior centers and to homeless groups. She leads a private class in Seattle. Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, she now lives in Edmonds, Washington, with her two dogs and a Maine Coon cat, she has completed a novel, novelette and a short-story collection.
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