Fiction

Playdate

By Kajetan Kwiatkowski

Tricia leashed the gentle giant, combed the fur around his collar, and gave him a prolonged, bombastic kiss.

She fought the instinct to sling on the delivery vest hanging from her back door, there was always extra cash to be made, but why turn this evening out into a job? This was the time to catch up with her magnificent beast after all.

After locking the basement suite, Tricia kept tight hold of the leash, keeping it at meter length or less. Her dog was no longer immune to the evolving palette of fleas, ticks, and worms barraging the city. Sophisticated crawlies were widely known to burrow into pets, causing anything from mild itching to fatal neoplasia.

“Maury, get away from that.”

“And that.”

“Maury.”

“Are you listening?”

She would not permit him near any bush, puddle, or large group of leaves. In a determined beeline, she guided Maurice for forty minutes straight past the abandoned streets, past the boarded up shops, and past the tent cities. Up the hill they climbed to where streetlamps worked reliably, and benches had dividers preventing one from laying down.

Ironically, the bright, bustling gentry-hood was even harder for Tricia to look at. Everywhere some cheery business logo ignited the urge to check her watch, and feel for the slots in her imaginary vest. Anywhere she glanced, the memory of a dozen city shortcuts would beckon, along with the yearning for that familiar notification sound. No, I am not working. Maurice and I are hanging out.

Only when she approached the entrance to Oakrise, did all these stresses wane. Even Maurice felt the tension drop, as if he too could read: ‘Welcome to Oakrise neighborhood dog park’. It was the largest in the city, offering ten acres of hedgerows, frisbee fields, and a myriad of walkways. By some miracle it was still kept a public space, despite being surrounded by affluent homeowners and infallible retail.

Here, Tricia loosened the grip on her beloved, and allowed him to linger amidst the magnolia and hawthorn trees. There was much smelling to be done, and of course, much marking of territory.

Flashing pink, the watch on Tricia’s wrist tried to reel her thoughts back to work, but she quickly turned it silent. The two of them ambulated past the park’s central plaza, towards a promising-looking field. A couple of figures leaned against a distant fence, laughing communally.

“Well well, Maurice, look who we got here.”

It was easy to tell they were technocrats. Mono-colored Tees, crisp black jeans, and sometimes —if it was windy like todayacid dye hoodies. She knew a couple of them. It was hard not to, living in the vicinity and constantly checking feeds.  The most famous ones had names like Marke, Brendt, Zaq or Evyn. Names trying hard to sound self-made, unique, but conveniently ignoring the silver spoons lodged deep in their throats since birth.

They each had a canine of course, and as Tricia approached, she could deduce the extravagant breed from her gigs as a dog-walker.

One of them was a brown-black Azawakh, a rare stock. Its tail, although normally curly, appeared artificially curled to a point of such comical fakeness that it resembled a spring from a mattress. I hope they didn’t hurt it doing that.

There was also a wistful mop roving in circles, which had to be a Pekingese: a dog celebrated and encouraged to appear more like living hair than animal. Tricia noticed they intentionally neglected to trim the bangs, obscuring its tiny eyes. Wow. What a choice.

The third, and perhaps most “punk-rock” of all, was a Jack Russell mutt; a dog which by any other means, would be a steal off of Begslist, but was here instead, selectively purchased no doubt for its opalescent husky eyes. Even from afar, Tricia saw their sky-blue glint and shook her head in dismay, knowing full well that each of its regular brown-eyed siblings were probably dumped at the pound. Humans are terrible.

Through feeds, Tricia knew these higher ups had some ritual of coming out for a lunchtime laugh, where they exchanged dog pats, and checked on each other’s animal as if it indicated something about their portfolios.

She hunched over to tend to Maurice, unpacking her frisbee and dangling it like food. “You ready for some infiltration?”

Maurice’s tail began to wag, he gave a good bark.

“Let’s play some harmless… Fetch!

The disk soared across the green. Its bright shape zipped above the pampered dogs, thwarting their meticulous training, each of their ears turned skyward.

Maurice bounded with the grace of a racehound. Despite his bear-like size and uncombed shag, the beast could reach top-speeds that outperformed even Tricia on a bicycle. It had been this wild, boundless energy that first drew Tricia to adopt him. That and his dopey grin.

After a few retrievals, Tricia pretended not to notice how close she had edged toward the three men, who had now taken out their vapes. She showered her beloved brute with a feast of compliments and kisses, scrounging all nearby attention. Very quickly, the Jack Russell (known for their spontaneity) could no longer resist and bounded towards Maurice on the next toss.

“Spritzer, come here!” one of the technocrats called. Then he coughed in an exhalation of pot-vapor and thumped his chest. His posse laughed.

“It’s okay,” Tricia smiled, “Maurice is friendly.”

She watched the Jack Russell up close and could see the intermittent shine of silver specks in his fur. Bingo. Anti-fleas.

The trio’s conversation lowered to a mutter. After more laughs and shrugs, the remaining dogs were permitted to join. Maurice woofed and chased the others in a friendly circle. The game of fetch was now over. Operation playdate had begun.

Take all the time you need, Tricia thought.

She wished she didn’t have to go through with this subterfuge every season, but anti-fleas, especially for those living near the ground floor like her, had become a necessity. It was the latest money grab on individuals still romanticizing the idea of owning a dog in the city. Any owner who wanted their pet to reach half its lifespan, would be ignorant not to purchase pet-defence fauna each year. Unable to afford the cost herself, Tricia was forced to have Maurice pilfer the crawly innoculations from those canines more fortunate.

She approached the men and revealed her own vape, a metal, cerulean thing obtained as swag from her local bank. In advertising terms, the color evoked trust and security, but in social terms, it hopefully signalled that she worked at the nearby branch, and was easy going.

They acknowledged her presence with polite glances and fleeting smiles. They waited to see if she’d say anything for nearly twenty seconds. None of them had the brass to break the ice. Man-children, Tricia thought. Through and through.

The boldest of the group eventually lowered his sunglasses. “That’s a big girl you’ve got. What’s her name?”

Tricia exhaled raspberry vapor. She could’ve corrected him on gender, but it was too early to appear disagreeable. In fact, she thought it would be funny to let him think otherwise. “Oh yes, that’s Maury, she’s my Chow Chow Samoyed Keeshond terrier”.

The three nerds nodded. None challenged the claim.

“You’re on lunch break?” Tricia asked.

They exchanged looks, as if daring each other to speak.

“Actually no, we’re done for the day.”

“We’re at ThoughtCast.”

The third started saying something incoherent, and then turned away to hide his laugh.

“Love social media.” Tricia lied. “I check the feeds each morning.”

Sunglasses faked a smile, “that’s what we like to hear.”

It was a weak joke. More awkwardness passed.

“You work at Metro Bank?” The second least cowardly asked.

Tricia drew some more vapor and pointed past the perimeter of trees. “I do. At the one on forty first.” She looked back at Maury, and could see he was already rolling between the other dogs.

“Good, steady job,” Sunglasses said. “You guys handle all my investments.”

“Mine too,” the coward said, “weight off my shoulders.”

The third, still giggling from his vape, finally managed to chime in. “Hey. Your watch, it’s flashing pink.”

Tricia lifted her wrist and quickly squelched the delivery offers. Stupid thing.

 “Hah. You know how it is,” she pocketed her watch-hand, “can’t resist a side-gig.”

The three of them shifted ever so slightly, heightening their postures.

“Oh no doubt.”

“Tough city to afford.”

Tricia fought the urge to check on Maury, too many glances and her ploy would seem obvious, she had to keep this middling distraction going, no matter how awkward.

“I actually started delivering during my walks,” she said, checking her nails, keeping it casual. “I walk Maury three times a day, so I might as well squeeze an extra buck while I’m at it, right?”

The two men nodded in silence. The third, after taking another toke said, “yeah that’s what Mojito’s walker does too. She sneaks in deliveries, phone-calls, all her side-hustles in one go. A multi-task queen.”

Sunglasses gave an agreeable smile to this, then turned to Tricia. “Do you offer dog-walks as well?”

Tricia hesitated. “I mean, not as much anymore, I’m pretty busy with the bank. Though I do have a few personal clients who —you know— pay premium.”

The eyebrows on all the man-children spiked. The cowardly one glanced at his own dog (the Pekingese), and then eyed Tricia very closely.

“How much is this premium?”

“Oh I doubt you’d be interested,” Tricia turned away. “These are clients I’ve been with for years, they’re practically friends.”

“Schawn and I have been looking for walkers,” Sunglasses said. “It’s hard to find a good one.”

Tricia nodded and saw that the dogs had stopped playing, taking interest in the field’s smells instead. She called Maurice over with a whistle. The bear-dog galloped towards her. The Jack Russell followed.

Tricia exhaled. “Well why don’t you tell me a little about your pets and I’ll think on a figure. I only walk dogs that get along with my own.”

All the animals coalesced by their owners, showing off their pink, panting tongues. Tricia pet deeply into Maurice’s fur, gingerly searching for any silvery flea-killers. Nothing yet.

“Well, this is Spritzer,” Sunglasses said, petting the Jack Russell. “As you just saw, he gets easily excited, but he’s also super obedient when you use the right commands. He’s been featured in a commercial once.”

The other two nodded, verifying this trivial fact.

“And this is Gimlet,” the coward patted his mop. “My girlfriend always wanted a pekingese, so like, I went out and ordered one. Watch, she can do a somersault.”

He snapped his fingers, and despite all the hair, a somersault was indeed performed.

Tricia smiled at the introductions, and even at the stoner who kept silent. “Well as somewhat of an aficionado, I will say, these are some fabulous beasts.” She stroked Spritzer and Gimlet, gently pulling them close against Maurice, making sure their furs brushed.

“It seems like they can get along okay. If you want, we can do a trial month.” She adjusted her hair and smoothed her shirt. Enacting a mockingly sensual, smokey tone she used for delivery tips, Tricia floated a monthly offer that equated to almost half her rent.

The stoner laughed. “Are you serious? Mojito’s walker is a tenth of that price.”

All the more reason to never see me again. Tricia forced a smile.

“Well hold on,” Sunglasses raised an arm, “Experience goes a long way. And I’d sooner trust a go-getter my age than one of those older burnouts.”

The other two looked at him with disbelief.

“If you’re willing to quote lower for the first month, I’d be open to paying a higher price later.” he lifted the glasses and offered two cheery eyes.

Must have been the vape, Tricia thought, tucking the metal away. Trustworthy and easygoing. That and he’ll eventually want my number. No question.

Tricia bent down to scratch Maurice behind the ears, and detected the faint, sinewy hop of a bug avoiding her fingers. The anti-flea transmission must have completed a minute ago. Mission accomplished.

“That sounds good to me,” she grinned. “I like your guys’ vibe.”

“That’s great,” Sunglasses said, “My name is Owyn by the way, spelled “Y-N.”

“Trish”

They shook hands. The other two watched with mild incredulity.

“I can tell you’re good just by how much your dog loves your presence,” Owyn said, “she totally adores you.”

“Oh she totally does,” Tricia agreed, still scratching Maurice’s head. She rolled Maurice over and exposed his naked belly in all its glory. Without a pause in the scratching, Tricia revealed his glaringly pink, unneutered male genitalia. It flopped side to side.

“Yeah I’ve had her for two years.”

*

For the rest of the day, Tricia and her beast hung out by the low hedgerows near the park’s exit. It was a great spot because most park-goers avoided the growing eyesores of the invasive blackberry vines —a stain on the park’s image, but Tricia didn’t care. It just meant she could pick and snack on all the blackberries she wanted, while throwing frisbees over the hedgerows.

“Go long Maury!”

“Good boy.”

“Jump!”

“Amazing catch.”

A few times, his majesty did fall amidst the bushes, and even tumbled in the dirt, but it didn’t matter now. Tricia could see the shining flea-guardians proliferating in his tousled coat, fending off any threats or concerns.

In a similar way, Tricia felt her own worries being deflected by the surrounding greenery. It was the right call, leaving her vest at home, and she also did the smart thing by finally removing her watch. Who cares about time? We’re hanging out.

 There was truly a priceless feeling being alone in nature, relaxing with your trusted animal. It was something that the distraction economy (and the man-children obsessed with it) could never understand.

Tricia popped a large blackberry in her mouth, its sourness oozed down her tastebuds. “You know Maury, we ought to ‘adopt’ you a brother. For when you’re home alone while I’m out making runs.”

Maurice leapt over the hedge bush, damaging it a little.

“You were getting along pretty nice with that wily Jack Russell. I think he’d have a better time with us, don’t you think?”

Maurice came to Tricia’s knees, dropped the frisbee from his mouth and gazed with that big dopey smile. He gave a good bark.

“I knew you’d agree. Next chance we get, let’s snag him.”

Categories: Fiction

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