Jason Pfister | Fiction

Zoe can feel the German Shepherds watching her. Cooper and Bear. Ears perked in the pointed shadow of the extended, green patio awning. She has bent to examine the hole with the pool filter. A white cylindrical basket floats inside, clicking against the edges. She takes the basket out, sets it next to the plastic cover on the ground, and stares into the rippling depth where beneath the scent of chlorine, there is something else, something sour and dead. She can see the second hole and the tube leading to the pump. She reaches her hand into the water, feeling the pressure of it against her skin, the pressure of the yellow kitchen glove that is vacuum sealing her hand. She reaches further and then there is the cool drip of liquid down her wrist as water rushes over the lip of the glove, slowly filling it, slowly loosening her fingers.

She thinks she feels something in the tube but can’t be sure and can’t get a grip.

She removes her hand, removes the water-filled glove, tries with a stick, but it’s no use, and so then, okay, that’s it. Time to call Mrs. Fetterman or wait, shit—Zoe keeps forgetting—not Mrs. Fetterman, ‘Carol’.

“It’s Carol, please, Zoe. I’m Carol. Oh my god, that skirt is so cute.”

Compliments and reminders. Earrings are cute, shoes are cute. Zoe can drink any of the wine from the cabinet in the kitchen, but the humidor wine in the dining room is “special”. Off-limits. Dogs get fed twice a day, walked twice a day. Recycling every other Tuesday. Garbage every Tuesday. Skirt is so cute. Earrings are adorable.

“Don’t call me Mrs. Fetterman. Doug’s mother is Mrs. Fetterman. Ha ha!”


“Hi Carol,” says Zoe after waiting for the beep. “I’m sorry to bother you. I hope the timeshare is wonderful and you and Doug are having a great trip. I’m just calling because the pump for the pool wouldn’t turn on this morning. I think something got stuck, a mouse or I don’t know what. I’m going to call the pool company and have someone over to fix it. I just wanted to let you know.”

She hangs up.

The dogs have followed her and are sitting next to each other on the floor, looking up expectantly.

“You guys are weirdos,” says Zoe.

She calls the pool company.

The dogs watch, panting.

“About an hour,” the guy says.

She hangs up, leans back against the counter, frowns, stretches, sighs. The place is kind of a wreck. Pizza boxes, take-out containers, empty bags of chips. Empty wine bottles all over the place, not just in the kitchen but on the patio and in the living room and bedroom. She opens a garbage bag and starts dropping stuff inside. The dogs follow as she makes her way. Nails clicking on the hardwood, more panting. She picks up an empty bag of chips and some crumbs spill out onto her foot. Bear sees it and lunges, licking fast. Tongue like an anteater, slippery teeth against her toes. Gross. Cooper tries to lick too, but Bear muscles him out, bumping Zoe while doing so. She almost gets knocked over. She moves around the coffee table and Cooper whines and jumps up on the couch, bumps her hip while she’s bending to pick up another wine bottle. Again, she almost falls.

“Can you guys just like…chill out?”

They look at her, ears perked.


She ties the bag of garbage and drops it into the pear-colored bin in the basement. It’s Tuesday and she needs to remember to roll the bin out tonight. The dogs are excited because they think they might be going for another walk. The leashes hang on the wall next to the switch for the garage door.


Bear’s sharp bark, tail wagging.

“You just went,” she tells him. Cooper’s tail is going too. “Not now.”

“Woof. Woof!”

She goes into the living room and turns on the television.

Bear jumps up on the couch and settles in next to her while Cooper takes his place on the floor at her feet.

She was watching Shrek 3 last night before she got too drunk and passed out on the couch. She half-watches the last forty minutes of it now, scrolling through her phone as she does so, stalking Ava and Jenny’s Instagram.

Paris is amazing!

Eiffel Tower!


French guys are so sexy!

The doorbell rings. Hell hounds.

“Woof, woof, woofwoofwoofwoofwoofwoofwoof!!”

“Okay! Okay!”


She watches the pool guy from the bathroom window on the second floor as he bends to examine the pump. He’s cute. Muscles but not too bulky. Shaggy blond hair like a surfer. She thinks about the first porno she ever saw. In seventh grade when Ava found a DVD in her older brother’s room, and they snuck into the basement to watch it in the middle of the night. There was a pool guy and a woman in a robe. The woman opened the front door and then took off her robe and then the pool guy took off his shorts and then the woman bent down and that’s when Zoe told Ava it was too gross and made Ava turn off the television.

“I think it kind of makes me want to come,” Ava told Zoe proudly, and Zoe didn’t know what “come” meant in that context and was ashamed.

She puts on her bathing suit and a robe and a little eye shadow. She goes downstairs and opens a bottle of wine. The dogs ignore her, watching the pool guy intently through the sliding glass doors in the living room, low growls periodically lilting through the air. She pushes past them, slides the door open, blocking Bear with her leg when he tries to squeeze through.

“How’s it going?” she asks barefoot on the edge of the awning’s pointed shadow. Pool guy turns, and he’s holding something dead and wet by the tail.

“Ew!” says Zoe. She looks away, playing it up a bit, damsel in distress. “Is that a squirrel?”

“Rat,” says the guy. She can hear the wet plop of the body as he drops it into an orange bucket at his feet.

“There are rats around here?”

“Rats are everywhere,” says the guy. “I’ll add a bit more chlorine and then you should be all set. Just don’t swim for the next three hours and make sure the basket on the filter is snapped in next time you empty it.”

He bends down, rummaging through his bag. Brown eyes. If she had to guess, she’d say late twenties.

Is she really doing this?


Her heart starts pounding. She takes a drink for courage.

“Do you want a glass of wine or something?” she asks.

He looks up at her. “Huh?”

“A glass of wine?” She repeats. “Or something?”

 He seems embarrassed.

“Oh,” he says. “I’m on the clock. And I got a bunch of other appointments today.”

“Oh,” she says. “Okay. Cool, you know, whatever.”

She laughs for some reason. Feels the hair prickle on the back of her neck, her cheeks blooming splotchy.

She goes back inside. Dog tails thwack her calves, wet noses on her knees and ankles.

She goes back into the kitchen and sits on one of the stools where she knows the guy can’t see her. She opens a bag of chips and the dogs come in and sit on the floor and watch. She throws each of them a single chip, but Bear licks up Cooper’s chip before Cooper can get it. She stands and gives Cooper two chips from her hand so that it’s equal. Cooper slobbers her palm and so she goes and washes it in the sink. The hand soap smells of watermelon. She pours herself more wine and hears a knock on the glass door in the living room.

Hell hounds, nails hissing, bodies sliding on the hardwood.


“Okay, I’m heading out!” the guy says, muffled through the glass. The dogs bark breath pancakes and spittle onto the window.

“Okay, thanks,” she says, forcing a smile and an awkward wave, her shoulder super casual against the doorway to the kitchen. The dogs keep barking. The guy is just standing there. It seems like maybe he’s going to say something else but then, no, he turns, he’s gone. The dogs follow him, rush past her, back through the kitchen so they can bark at him from the tall rectangle window in the foyer.

She goes and sits down on the couch, turns on the TV again, scrolling. There’s nothing. She doesn’t want to watch TV anyway. The dogs come back. Bear on the couch. Cooper on the floor.

Fuck it.

“Uh, would either of you perhaps be interested in a WALK?”


She doesn’t understand what the old man is saying at first. He is dressed in a gray sweatsuit, his spine curved forward like a coat hanger. She’d smiled at him when he stepped outside the screen door, but he did not smile back and now he seems upset.

“What?” says Zoe.

“Your goddman animals!” the old man says, clearer this time, a lot clearer and louder, and he’s upset for sure. “Get them the hell off the grass!”

These words strike Zoe as totally insane.

“They’re just sniffing,” she says, glancing at Cooper, who is the only one actually on the lawn itself and is absolutely just sniffing.

“This is my property. Get them the hell off this instant or I’ll call the police!”

“It’s not illegal for dogs to sniff your lawn,” she says even though she’s only maybe eighty-five percent on this. 

“They’re not sniffing, they’re shitting and pissing!” cries the old man, dropping a shaky orthopedic shoe down to the second concrete step, eyes wide and one eye spidery red in the corner with a popped blood vessel. “They’re ruining the grass with their goddman piss!”

“They’re not pissing, they’re sniffing,” Zoe says.

“What?” says the old man.

“They’re just sniffing, you old fart!”

“What did you just say?” the old man cries. “What the hell did you just say?”

He takes another shaky step and almost falls, varicose veins, clinging desperately to the black metal banister.

“Uhhhh,” he groans.

Eyes wide, locked on hers, blood vessel in the corner, almost black. Staring, wobbling.


All right, enough of this shit.

Zoe pulls Cooper off the lawn and then she and the dogs move away down the sidewalk.

She makes it another block before she hears the call behind her.

“Hey! Wait up!”

The woman is middle-aged, died red hair, sunglasses, a flowing, eggshell white dress that Zoe mistakes for a toga at first.

“My dog was just sniffing,” she tells the woman. “I swear.”

The woman advances.

“I saw the whole thing,” says the woman, and now, up close, Zoe can see she’s smiling. “I thought it was hilarious.”

The dogs are pulling the leashes towards the woman with their tails wagging.

“You’re the girl who’s watching the Fetterman’s house. Right?”

The woman bends and pets the dogs.

“Oh,” says Zoe. “Yeah, that’s me.”

Her name is Carmen. She doesn’t have a pool, but there’s a willow tree in her backyard. They sit on the porch and watch the dogs gnaw desiccated pig ears underneath the swaying branches.

“My ex-husband, Ben, he took our dog in the divorce,” Carmen explains, pouring Zoe another glass of rosé. “But he left behind those ears.”

“I’m sorry,” says Zoe. “That’s not fair.”

Carmen shrugs.

“Scooby liked Ben better,” says Carmen. “Anyway, I got the house.”

“Oh,” says Zoe. “Not a bad trade then. It’s a beautiful place.”

“It is,” says Carmen. “I can’t really afford it, but it is.”

She still hasn’t taken off her sunglasses, not even when she was inside the house. What is she hiding? Zoe wonders, hoping it’s good.

“Are you having a nice summer?” Carmen asks.

“Yes,” says Zoe. “Well, kind of.”

Zoe tells Carmen how Ava and Jenny are in Europe. How they had all planned a girl’s trip together, but Zoe didn’t make enough money at her cafe job and so now she’s stuck house-sitting her mom’s old college friend’s house instead of drinking wine in Paris.

“Europe is overrated,” says Carmen. “Do you have a boyfriend?”

They broke up in March. His name was Connor. He was older than Zoe and had gotten into graduate school in Oregon. He told Zoe he didn’t believe in long-distance relationships, but if—in a few years—she also got into graduate school in Oregon, then maybe they could talk about getting back together. 

“Kind of the worst, right?.”

“Men,” says Carmen.


Zoe laughs but for some reason, this bonding moment is followed by silence. Zoe sips. Carmen sips. In an effort to get things back on track, Zoe talks of the dogs, how needy they are, always pressing up against her, always wanting to be pet. Carmen just nods, so then Zoe talks of how she hates to cook and how expensive take-out is. How she’s been wasting the thousand-dollar stipend the Fetterman’s gave her. Buying wine and pizza and Chinese and renting movies. Oh, and how Mr. Fetterman has a huge model train set in the basement, isn’t that silly?

Carmen leans forward and finally takes her glasses off. Zoe, who has been waiting for this moment, is a little disappointed to see that there’s nothing wrong with her face. Normal, a few wrinkles, you might even call it pretty.

What was she expecting anyway? A mole? A scar? A black eye at least? 

“Why do you think that’s silly?” Carmen asks.

“Oh I don’t know, just that he’s a grown man who plays with trains?”

Zoe says this in a biting way that is meant to make Carmen laugh, but instead, Carmen just folds her dark glasses and places them purposefully atop the wicker coffee table in front of them. Her eyes drift off.

“He puts them together himself,” says Carmen. “Paints the little men and molds the bushes into shapes and everything. He really puts a lot of time into it.”

There is something a little tense about the way she says this, and so Zoe instinctively decides to change the subject.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to say there’s anything wrong. My father, he’s a whittler. He whittles little gnomes and things. Anyway, I’m probably just jealous because I always wanted a hobby. My mother has a book club. Did you ever have one? A hobby, I mean, not a book club.”

Carmen doesn’t answer, her eyes still distant. Perhaps they always were, and Zoe just couldn’t tell because of the glasses. 

“We were all quite close,” says Carmen after a time. “We used to have the Fetterman’s over for cocktails, every weekend, Ben and I, and we’d all sit here together here, just like this.”

Zoe nods. “It’s a beautiful place,” she says.

Cooper has given up on his pig ear and is sniffing along the edge of the white picket fence. Carmen lifts her drink and gives a sorry shake of her head.

“Now I’m all alone,” she says. “The whole neighborhood treats me like a leper.”

“Oh,” says Zoe. “But you’re so lovely. Why would they do that?”

Carmen smiles sadly.

“Because I’m free,” says Carmen. “And that is what happens in places like this, to women like me. We get spurned. We get forgotten and ridiculed.”

“Well, I’m sure the Fetterman’s don’t feel that way. I could speak to them if you’d like, tell them you feel forgotten over here. They’re really very nice people.”

Again, Carmen smiles a sad sort of smile, and takes a sip of wine.

“You would do that for me?” she says.

“Of course,” Zoe says but then she sees Bear sniffing back and forth at the base of the fence, his hind legs moving in a way that she has seen before, a kind of front-loaded tip-toing, and then all at once, before she can call to him, he squats and starts to squeeze out a ropey line of black shit onto the lawn.

“Bear!” Zoe cries, jumping up and spilling wine down her leg.

“Sorry,” she says caught in between wiping the leg with her fingers while also searching for the leash with the plastic baggies attached. “I’ll clean that up. Sorry!”

“No,” says Carmen. “Leave it. Who cares?”


It’s well past noon when the dogs wake her, though there is the faded memory of a doorbell, or some kind of bell, ringing from on high and across the dream kingdom.

In the hallway, her heel squishes into something warm and wet that smears and almost takes her down. There are no illusions. The Fetterman note was clear: “dogs must be walked by ten o’clock”.


In the bathroom, with her foot under the faucet in the tub, the barking stops, and by the time she makes it downstairs, the two knuckleheads are wagging their tails and nosing their food dishes like they’ve saved the day.

“Woof! Woof!”

“Okay, relax. Give me a second.”

There’s no one on the stoop or directly outside on the street. It’s a bright morning, afternoon, whatever, a little haze, but still bright and warm and pleasant. She takes a beat, looks left/right, but no one. Oh well. She’s about to open the door and go back inside when she sees the teal-colored truck with the sign on the top that reads “Aqua Pool” headed her way. Pool guy is driving all right, and their eyes meet, and his eyes go wide and the truck breaks suddenly with pool guy’s head and shoulders jerking like he wasn’t expecting it to stop at all.

“I rang the bell,” he says careening toward the open passenger-side window.

“Sorry,” says Zoe. “My headphones were on.”

“I should have called,” he says sounding disappointed with himself but maybe also in Zoe? She can’t tell and then there’s a brief what-the-fuck-are-we-doing-here moment before he seems to remember something exciting and sits up and points past Zoe to the gate that leads to the backyard.

“I was just going to check the levels,” he says.

“Oh,” says Zoe. “Okay, that’s fine.”

“Okay,” he says.


In the kitchen, the gurgle of the coffee machine blends with the sizzle of bacon in the frying pan and the scrape of metal dishes being licked clean on the floor. A kind of Avant-Garde symphony being played in honor of her hangover.

She thinks back, taking stock of the night. Carmen’s famous butter pasta. With olives! Talking non-stop about women Zoe doesn’t know, women who have wronged Carmen and have not supported her in the divorce. Women who never supported Carmen and have made Carmen feel very badly indeed, women and their husbands and their children and Ben’s family, who are monsters, who also have never accepted Carmen, who will never accept Carmen because she is not from wealth, despite how hard she tried with the gifts she would bring for Ben’s nieces and nephews every Christmas, without ever receiving even so much as a thank you note from those ungrateful brats or their ungrateful parents.

What else…

That old man, the one with the lawn, his wife died a few months back from leukemia, which made Zoe feel a little, well she wasn’t quite sure…and oh, Carmen wanted to know what Zoe’s plans were, after college, when real life started.

Move in with you? Zoe told her, as a joke. But Carmen seemed to take the idea seriously.

“Why not? Oh, darling, why not? God knows I have the space!”

At some point, Zoe walked home with the dogs, took a swim in the pool, danced in the shower to Taylor Swift, danced in the living room with the dogs to Taylor Swift, watched TV. Nightcap. Bed.

She forgot to take the recycling out. Shit.

She pours coffee, forks the bacon onto a paper towel, the dogs now positioned on either side of her like sentinels. She cracks an egg. The bell rings.

World War Three. Zombie apocalypse.



“Levels look good,” says pool guy.

“Okay,” says Zoe, still with the spatula in her hand, the dogs scratching against the door at her back.

She turns to go but then pool guy claps his hands, startling her a little.

That was weird.

He seems nervous. She wonders if he is trying to get her to invite him in for a drink again. Fat chance of that, buddy. Snooze you lose. Making her feel like a creep. Like she was some kind of alcoholic, or a teenager or—

“So hey…” says pool guy. “I actually play in a band, and like…you’re probably busy but like…would you want to maybe come see a show tonight?”


“Hi, Zoe! It’s Carol. Thanks for letting us know about the pool. They know us at Aqua and the bill will go straight through to our account. Our place down here is to die for! Our room looks right out onto the ocean and Doug and I are really reconnecting. There’s this aaamazing tiki bar where you literally sit in a pool and a waiter swims over and takes your drink order. Also, the ceviche is the best ceviche I’ve ever eaten in my life. I wish we could bring you back some but well, sorry, I mean, it’s raw fish! Ha ha. Okay! Again, please drink up that wine we have in the cabinet but not the wine in the humidor. I couldn’t remember if I made that clear in the note or not. But I know I told you before we left. Anyway, thank you so much, Zoe! Hope you’re having fun! Send my love to the babies!”


Zoe decides on a plan. She’ll invite him back after the show and they’ll swim naked in the pool with the changing colors. She won’t kiss him. Not in the pool anyway. In the shower, she’ll let him kiss her, but only after he gives her a massage. They will make love in the Fetterman’s giant bed. The dogs will be locked in the guest bedroom. They won’t like it but tough luck. It’s a good plan, she decides, and she feels her stomach twist a little in a way that proves how excited she is.

She walks down to wine store on the corner. They know her at Wine-O-Clock. Zoe ran out of the Fetterman’s cabinet-Chardonnay on day two.

“I’m glad someone is enjoying their summer,” the woman behind the counter says, smiling like this is a fun and appropriate thing to say.

“Yeah…” says Zoe.

Respect your customers.

The only thing is, she might not tell Ava and Jenny about pool guy’s name.


“I was named after my great grandfather.”

Borderline child abuse naming a kid Herb. Almost like naming your kid Adolf. At one point it was probably totally fine, but that was a long fucking time ago. Herb sounds like his mother gave birth in the back of an obnoxiously large tractor. Couldn’t he have just given himself a nickname or something?

Zoe runs through a long list of better, imaginary names in her head: Kiren, Colson, Jack, James, Antonio, Anthony, Viktor, Brandon, Bill, Alejandro!

“Alejandro, Alejandro, Ale-Ale-jandro!”

She spends the rest of the afternoon getting ready and singing Lady Gaga.


At seven, Herb picks her up in the pool truck. She’s wearing one of Carol’s dresses, it’s a little tight in the hips, and she has trouble climbing into the passenger seat, especially with the heels. Herb just sits there watching. The cab smells of chlorine and tobacco and marijuana.

“You don’t have your own car?” she asks.

“This is mine,” says Herb. “And oh, we’re just going to stop and pick up my buddy Ed.”

Ed? Who the fuck is Ed?

“Is there enough room?” Zoe asks, eyeing the large gear shift on the floor between them.

“Yeah,” says Herb, like this is a dumb question.

They drive in silence for a while.

“How did you get into the pool business?”

His uncle owns the place. Herb asked his uncle for a job. His uncle said yes. His uncle is an okay boss. His uncle owns an old Mustang that’s yellow and really cool.

“It sounds cool…”

“Yeah. It is.”

They pull up to Ed’s house and there’s Ed waiting on the uncut lawn, a short, goblin-like man that Zoe would have guessed was fourteen if he wasn’t balding.

“Whoa,” Ed says when he opens the door. “You look like my sister!”

Zoe nods, okay.

“She’s like, in the Navy,” Ed says.

Should Ed be here? Why is Ed here? She has to squeeze into the middle with the gear shift and there isn’t enough room and Ed puts his birdlike wrist against her bare knee.

“How far are we going?”

“Like ten minutes,” says Herb.

It’s more like twenty, the boys talk about people and bands she’s never heard of. She sits in silence, cringing, digging her nails hopelessly into cracked, faux leather cushions every time there’s a turn. It’s pointless, and she gets sandwiched every time. Ed is not wearing deodorant and the gear shift keeps smacking against her knee.

“I’m house-sitting so I’m going to have to go back pretty early for the dogs.”


“I have to get back early.”

“We’re almost there.”


The bar is one of two buildings in a strip mall parking lot. The other is a nail salon.

There are maybe five people seated at the bar already, all over sixty, all dressed in plaid button-downs, even the women.

Zoe orders her own drink—vodka tonic because they don’t have white wine—while Herb, and Ed, and two men in their forties, set up their equipment on the small stage at the back of the room.

She’s trying to stay positive.

Herb does look kind of cute back there with his little sticks.

She takes a seat at one of the high tops and waits for the sound check. The lead singer has a long, frizzy ponytail streaked with gray and is wearing a Jane’s Addiction t-shirt. His pants are too tight, muffin top. The sound check starts, and he keeps meeting her eye while he’s singing. It makes her very uncomfortable, especially because, oh Christ, they are just terrible. Really, just unbelievably awful.

Herb cannot keep rhythm, but all of them look so awkward, so uncomfortable, like a group of middle schoolers at their first boy-girl dance. All pent up. Stiff as boards. A couple in the back of the bar gets up and walks out. The bartender puts earplugs in.

“How’s it sound? Good? Okay, let’s take five and then get the show started!”

Herb walks over to her and tells her that they’re just going to take five and then get the show started. She knows, thanks. He leaves her and stands at the bar talking with Ed and the pudgy guitarist who has a skull earring dangling from his left earlobe.

The singer comes over and says his name is Ace but doesn’t ask her name.

“Nice to see some new blood! You got a ride with Herb?”

She nods.

“Cool, cool, what kind of music you listen to?”

She takes a sip of her drink.

“Mostly pop.”

“Pop? Is that what you said? Pop is not music.”

She nods. She’s met this type before and knows better than to take the bait.

“You ever listen to these guys?” he tugs the front of his t-shirt.

“I don’t think so.”

“Seriously? Oh my god, well here, you got a pen on you?”


“Hold on.”

He comes back with a napkin and pen and starts scribbling.

Ritual de lo Habitual, and Nothing’s Shocking. Listen as soon as you get home. It’s going to change your fucking life. Two of the greatest albums of all time. Dave Navarro, you know Dave Navarro, right?”

“I’m not really—”

“Jesus! Greatest guitarist of all time. Absolutely shreds, face melting solos on those albums,” he slides the napkin across the table, tapping with his index finger. “I put my number on there too. Text me after you listen to Ritual. Tell me it hasn’t blown your fucking mind or drinks are on me next time I see you out.”

Zoe takes a deep breath.

“I’m going to grab a beer,” he says, “but we can talk more after the show. What about A Perfect Circle? You listen to Perfect Circle?”


A Lyft from the bar will cost her eighty dollars. She stands alone in the parking lot trying to convince herself not to cry. The muffled sound of two tractor-trailer trucks tumbling down a mountain with one of those shrieking goats locked inside. She cannot stay here. She will not. She is about to bite the bullet, pay the king’s ransom, but just before she taps purple to call the car, she arrives at something that feels akin to a divine revelation and remembers that she has Carmen’s number in her phone.


      “A pool guy?” says Carmen, sunglasses on, though the sky is rapidly darkening behind them, bright orange clouds rising like a lava lamp in the velvet blue. “You are way too done up for a pool guy.”

“I know, I feel ridiculous,” says Zoe looking down at Mrs. Fetterman’s truly fantastic, pastel slip.

Carmen is smiling softly and looking at Zoe in a way that feels a bit like admiration.

 “You remind me of me when I was younger,” says Carmen after a time, lifting her sunglasses to rest atop her head. “Big dreams.”

Zoe doesn’t know what to say to that exactly. She just wanted to get laid. Not a big dream really, but okay.  

“I had an affair,” says Carmen. “That’s really why they hate me. The neighbors. And, oh Zoe, I was afraid to tell you because I thought you might hate me too. But seeing you tonight, I think it’s important you understand how these things can happen.”

Again, Zoe isn’t exactly sure what Carmen means. Carmen takes a long breath.

“It was disappointment, just such horrible disappointment, and Doug he…”

Doug? It starts coming together as Zoe watches Carmen dab the corner of each eye with her wrist.

“I was trying to save myself,” Carmen says, sniffling. “I want them to see that. I want them all to see me and to know that at least I tried, at least I have something within me that knew something was wrong with this place, with the way we live, with the way everything is set up. At least I tried to do something about it, and I was not afraid and followed it in myself, a thing I could feel and knew I actually wanted. Even if he didn’t want me back in the end.”

      Again, all Zoe can do is nod and force, what she imagines is a bit of a cringey smile. Then she starts to feel a little sick. So Carmen and Doug they—

“Oh, honey,” says Carmen, “souls like ours are just too good for this world.”

Zoe nods.

They drive in silence the rest of the way back to the Fetterman’s.

“Thanks so much, you really saved me back there.”

“Please. Anytime, honey…”

Zoe opens the door and gets out of the car.

“Hey, do you think I could ask you a favor?” Carmen asks.  

“Oh, of course.”

Carmen opens her mouth to speak but then seems to get shy.

“When you see Carol, can you tell her that I never meant…” but she can’t seem to find the words. The silence lasts longer than Zoe can pretend to be comfortable. “That I never meant…”

The desert in winter.

No wind. No rain.  

“I should really get inside to walk the dogs,” Zoe says.

“Oh,” says Carmen almost seeming to have forgotten Zoe was there at all. “Yes, of course. Of course, darling, I don’t want to keep you. I…oh never mind. Just forget I said anything. Okay?”


In the cool breeze, under a streetlamp with the dogs, a call comes from Herb but goes to voicemail.

“I guess you left? Sorry if I didn’t understand that you had to get back so soon. I would have driven you if you had just waited till the set was over. I feel bad because, well, I know I can be kind of awkward when it comes to this kind of thing, with like girls and stuff. I hope I didn’t give you mixed signals or that you wanted me to be more aggressive or assertive with you or whatever, but I think you’re really pretty and I’d like to keep hanging out, you know, if you wanted to do that. We’re actually going to Ace’s spot tonight, if you wanted me to pick you up again, and we could smoke weed and drink some beers and maybe—“

Upstairs, Zoe undresses and puts on a robe. In the kitchen, she pulls one of the bottles she bought at Wine-O-Clock from the cabinet, needles the cork, twists it once, twice, then stops.

They probably wouldn’t even notice.

After tonight, after all this, she deserves it.

She twirls the silver spiral out the other way. Dogs watching. They follow her to the dining room, sniffing her back as she bends and opens the humidor. Wet noses on her spine, dampening the thin fabric. Cooper licks her heel.

She has an app on her phone that scans labels. She wants something good but not too good. A six-hundred-dollar Pinot? No. Three-fifty? No. Two-fifty for a Malbec. Ehh.

One-twenty-five, Cabernet, France.


She carries the bottle and a glass outside onto the patio and flips the switch for the pool light. The dogs aren’t happy to be stuck inside. Bear barks and gets on his hind legs, meaty gray paws on the glass.

“No!” Zoe scolds. Bear jumps down, but he barks again. She positions herself on the edge of the water so that the label is illuminated by the light from the house and the changing colors of the neon water is the backdrop. She takes a picture with her phone and sends an Instagram message to Ava and Jenny.

Bring me back a bottle of this stuff. So good!

The dogs start barking again.

“No!” says Zoe. “No!”

 The slight breeze turns the skin on her legs to gooseflesh. She tightens her robe, cuts away the metal casing on the bottle. The dogs won’t stop barking. She dips her toes, about to spear the cork when she sees something moving in the water.

She screams, almost drops the bottle but doesn’t. The scream makes the dogs go silent, thinking perhaps it is directed at them. The rat must have been struggling for some time. Its head is barely above water, its paws slipping lethargically against the liner. Zoe pulls her feet out, wet shadows widening on the concrete next to the wine bottle. She watches the rat struggle, watches it dip and rise and paw before she turns and goes and picks up the skimmer pole that is leaning against the side of the house. She walks around the edge of the pool, dips the skimmer and lets the animal grab hold, then pulls it out, dripping. She moves towards the fence and the neighbor’s yard with the pole out in front, trembling from the weight, shiny black eyes and rat fingers clinging, long pink tail dangling over the edge of the plastic frame like a drowned earth-worm. She aims for the hedge that lies beyond, reaches the fence and feels the pole clack against the top and vibrate through her palms. The screen bounces a little on impact, but the rat remains fixed, suckered, like a leech, even as Zoe begins to slide the pole. She keeps a watchful eye on the beast, lowering the screen down slowly into the bushes, into the shadow of the gnarled branches of the hedge, and when she is sure it is settled, when she feels the stolid push of earth, she gives the pole a single, violent shake, hoping it is enough to expel the creature, but it’s not. The rat’s claws are still locked in a death grip to the screen, and so she has to reposition herself, has to tilt the skimmer vertically, her left breast pressing against the cool painted wood of the fence. She shakes the pole again. More force this time, breath hissing through her teeth, the pole clacking, bushes rustling. She does not stop until the weight breaks free, and when it finally does, she jerks the skimmer back up and stands alone, breathing, holding the pole like a flag or a spear, breathing, a little shell-shocked.

It takes a moment to come back to herself, but eventually, she goes and walks and places the skimmer against the side of the house where she found it, aware of the hum of the pool filter, the changing colors, and glinting, dappled meridian, rippling in the corner of her eye like a wormhole. She begins to walk back towards the side door, but when she sees Cooper and Bear watching her through the window, she stops suddenly and has the terrible thought that her life will never be what she hoped and maybe no one’s life ever really is.

A wave of despair envelops her, but it does not last. She watches the breath from the dog’s snouts plume and fade against the pane, and then she goes and picks the bottle of wine up off the concrete, takes it back inside, glancing at Mrs. Fetterman’s—at Carol’s—collection of cartoonishly cherubic porcelain figurines, displayed atop a glass shelf in the hall. Big-headed statues with wide, childlike eyes and faces, their pudgy bodies frozen in scenes of domestic bliss. A big-headed woman picking turnips from her garden, a big-headed man in overalls pushing a wheelbarrow full of firewood, two big-headed lovers in raincoats, smiling down at a cluster of ducklings. Zoe pictures Carol at a stationary store in town with a hand to her heart. She keeps moving. The shepherds follow close behind, nails ticking on floorboards, ears perked, tongues out, panting as Zoe squats and returns the bottle safely, and not without a degree of care, to the humidor.