While waiting in the car line to pick up my daughters from school on Friday, an idea pops into my head: I will treat them to after-school cookies from the nearby bakery. I debate with myself about this thought, because I’m in a cycle of frugality, feeling like I contribute little, only consume, being the caretaker and not the breadwinner. At something like $3.00 a piece, this snack seems extravagant, but it’s Friday of the first full week of school, and it’s a beautiful sunny August afternoon, and the girls will rejoice with happiness when I tell them. So well-decorated, overpriced sugar cookies they shall have.
And they do rejoice. I adore their bright woots and pleases and thank yous.
I’ll have to leave the dog in the van, but since picking out cookies only takes a few minutes, I know she will be fine. I lower each window two or three inches. The front two power windows are too sensitive and want to roll all the way down or up with the my slightest touch—-handy when ordering Starbucks, irritating when aiming for a bit of ventilation, not full access. The back two sliding door windows are much more cooperative.
“We’ll be right back Ribbons!” the girls say as we shut the van doors.
Walking toward the storefront, I hear Ribbons begin to bark. Ribby-Roo we call her, in part because her barking is beagle-like: roo-roo-roo she bays. She is the barkiest dog I’ve ever known.
Once inside, the girls head straight for the glass front cookie counter, where they debate between the flower cookie, or the new Sesame Street cookies. They don’t even watch Sesame Street anymore, but how anyone could resist the Big Bird Cookie is beyond me, unless one opts for Oscar the Grouch. He is fantastic. As the bakery clerk boxes up the precious cookies, a customer who left moments before returns to the store.
“Does someone have a dog in a van out there?” she asks.
“Yes, I left my dog in the car. It’s fine. We’ll be out in just a minute,” I say.
“Do you know how hot it is outside? It’s 110 degrees in your car right now.”
I blink a few times before answering. Is she joking? Don’t I look like a reasonable person?
“Um, I think she’s fine. I cracked all the windows and I’ll be out in a minute. Seriously, we’re only in here to buy cookies.” I chortle, feeling shock and embarrassment.
“I’m glad you think this is funny, but I don’t,” she spits at me. “You’re literally killing your dog right now. Is that the kind of parent you want to be? You’re a horrible person.”
I feel shame rising in my chest and coloring my cheeks. Every set of eyes in the bakery digs judging holes into me. I feel like a seven year old who has done wrong, really wrong, and now realizes that all the adults are shaking their heads with disapproval. Like the time I removed all the metal hooks off the pegboard shelves at the five-and-dime. With gentle upward pressure those Y shaped hooks fell right into my hand, and one after another, I shoved them into my coat pocket. The shelves looked better without all the empty metal fingers pointing at me as I walked the aisles. Later when my mom asked about the clanking racket I made with each step, it occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t have taken the hooks. Afraid, I told her my pockets were full of pennies. Of course, she knew better and I had to confess my crime to the store owner. Dishonest thieves wait a long time to regain the approval of adults, I learned.
“Dogkiller!” she calls me, as I root around in my purse for my wallet, eager to pay and leave.
I want to hide. For a moment I problem solve the situation, searching for a way to get this woman to stop yelling at me. It seems silly to abandon my transaction now, as we’ll only be here another moment. I think about giving my nine-year-old daughter the keys to the van to go out and check on the dog. But no, sending my child into a parking lot to open up the van feels wrong. Ribbons might actually jump out. Then what? My child chasing the dog through the parking lot would be unsafe, and probably headline fodder. I could go get Ribbons out of the car, but I don’t have a leash with me, plus I can’t bring her in the bakery.
Shaking off this inner-questioning, I conclude that my decision to leave the dog in the car was perfectly fine, because the dog is not in danger.
“Like I said, I’ll be out in one minute. The dog is fine,” I say.
“You are killing your dog. I’m going to wait by your car,” she says.
I hand the bakery assistant my card to pay for the cookies, and after a few seconds, I sign the sales slip.
“Thank you,” she says with downturned eyes. I do not try to make eye contact with her, either. With a quick glance around as we leave, I note that the dozen workers and customers in the bakery silently watch my every movement.
As the girls and I walk to the car, I pull out my phone to check the temperature. Had I underestimated the heat today? Eighty-eight degrees. Warm, but not oppressive and it’s dry today, not too humid. Would I have made the same decision again? Yes.
I actually know plenty about hot boxes and suffocating dogs.
When I was very young, probably four or five, my father had a playhouse built for me in our backyard. It was a sound structure, about 80 square feet, built on a proper concrete slab, with a latching door, three real glass windows, and a sloped, shingled roof. One summer afternoon, our poodle, Samson, got in the playhouse. I believe I must have forgotten to close the door after playing out there, and he wandered in, the inviting shade of the playhouse a welcome relief to the heat of the unyielding desert sun on his black curls. I can see him rolling around on the blue carpet, trying to rub out a flea bite, legs kicking up in the air like a dying cockroach. I see him squirming, then his wriggling body nudges the door closed. I hear it latch. And in my mind, he is whining at the door when he realizes he is shut inside the playhouse, now tearing up the blue carpet trying to dig under the door like he has done before under the backyard fence. His paws churn a rhythmic beat against the floor—he’s like the Road Runner winding up before dashing away from Wile E. Coyote. Growing tired, he now paws at the door, putting deep scratches in the wood with his frenzied clawing. Maybe he’s barking. Now he’s panting, lying on his side, working hard to cool off, to breathe. But we don’t notice his suffering, because we are in the house, not in the backyard. We don’t even notice he’s gone until the next day. His stiff body was covered with carpet lint and paint chips from his desperate attempt to escape the airless tomb.
When the girls and I get to the van, the woman, who is sitting in her vehicle near mine, rolls her window down partway.
“You’re lucky I didn’t call the police,” she says.
“Girls, get in the van,” I say. They climb in and close the sliding door.
“You know, the dog is just fine so I think you can mind your own business now,” I say.
“I work for an animal rescue and that makes all dogs my business. You don’t even know how a dog gets overheated and dies. It’s 110 degrees in your car right now.”
“It’s not 110 degrees in my car. It’s only 88 degrees out here. We were in the bakery for five minutes.”
“How would you like to sit in a hot box wearing a fur coat? You’re a dog killer!” she yells over me.
“You know, I think it’s time for you to get off your high horse,” I say. I open the driver’s door to the car.
“Is that the kind of example you want to set for your children? Leaving your dog in a broiling hot car? Dogkiller!”
As I closed the door to the van I extended my middle finger. Not my finest moment.
“Yes, right, fuck you too, Dogkiller Bitch! DOGKILLER! DOGKILLER!” she shouts as we reverse out of the parking spot. Her voice is still audible as we pull away, what with all the windows lowered.
I look over at Ribbons, who sits on the floor between the driver and passenger seat. She gives me her dopey grin and twitches her ears at me.
“Mommy, are you okay?” my nine-year-old asks, as we pull out of the parking lot.
“You know, she was really out of control. It’s true that a dog can die if it’s left in a hot car for a long time, but I knew Ribbons would be okay for a couple of minutes. And look! She’s fine.”
My youngest points out that the woman had raised her middle finger at me and used some inappropriate language.
“Yes, she did. But I raised my finger first. She was responding to me. I shouldn’t have done that. I just got really mad at the end,” I say. I try to stay my trembling hands on the driver’s wheel.
My nine-year-old starts to cry. “Mommy, I don’t want to talk about this. It’s making me so upset,” she says.
“Oh, love, I’m sorry. That was so dramatic and awful. I wish she would have just calmly talked to me instead of yelling in front of everyone, especially you two.”
We enter the house, the girls got right into their cookies, and I immediately try to call my close friend because the adrenaline is still charging and I desperately need to download it. She does not answer her phone, so naturally I take to Facebook. As I compose my post, it occurs to me that a picture of my van and dog is probably hitting some other news feed, that her tribe is likely leveling lots of supportive judgments about idiots like me who don’t deserve the companionship of animals, how karma is a bitch and I have it coming, about how she is a true hero for taking time to protect a dog, how someone should lock me in a hot car and see how I like it. For a moment, that likelihood feels so humiliating, and I am tempted to hide from it or cover it up by lashing out at Ribbons, who keeps putting her head in my lap, begging for attention, and the girls, who are now coked up on sugar and bouncily asking for TV time.
After I hit “post” I find myself a glass of ice-water and sit down for a little think and drink. Ribbons jumps up on the couch with me and places her front paws and head in my lap for some good old scratches. I work my fingers behind her ears and let her lick my wrists and hands. I make internal space for my feelings of embarrassment and exposure. Am I embarrassed about what I did? No, I am embarrassed about how the folks in the bakery must view me now. Will I ever show my face in that bakery again? Not anytime soon. Are my daughters going to tell their teachers that I flipped off a stranger, that I left our dog in the car? Great! Now they will also disapprove of me.
After a few deep breaths, I admonish myself for caring what any of those folks thinks about me and then remind myself that I am a whole, grown, imperfect, ragged woman, who may or may not be a dog killer. I bend down to touch my nose to Ribbons’. It is cold and wet against mine, and we see each other, eye to eye. Her wagging tail bounces up and down on the couch cushion.
Andrea Dunn is from Indianapolis, Indiana by way of the Texas-Mexico border and North Carolina. She enjoys working at home raising her three children. For decades, she wrote for her own enjoyment and growth, but has begun sharing her work, including an essay published in Entropy Magazine and poetry featured in Flying Island Literary Journal. Andrea studied creative writing at Texas Tech University. She feels great satisfaction when she can inspire elementary aged children to write their stories. Andrea loves cooking, hates cleaning, tolerates yard work, and lives for wine and Netflix. See more of her work at https://andrealeedunn34.wixsite.com/andreadunn.