erica wanted to do something nice for Mark, something that would help with the search, and since his truck was hauled to the shop this morning, she offered to drive. She told him that he could sit in the passenger seat for a change, and she would drive slowly to give him a better vantage point when he looked out the window. She also hoped that they would get a chance to talk, but each time she stopped at a light and glanced over at Mark, he twisted his body so far to the right that she could only see his face reflected in the glass. She thought that he would at least accidentally look her way, but it hadn’t happened yet, not since Erica lost his chocolate brown Labrador at the dog park three days ago.
“I’m so glad the monsoon is here,” Erica said as she looked at the sky, where clouds had been gathering all day, casting a gray light over the gaudy desert colors both natural and manmade.
“Helmut’s scared of the rain,” Mark said, not moving from his seat or the window.
Erica wanted to keep the conversation going, but worried that anything she said would point out how miserably hot it was the day she lost Helmut. For the rest of the ride toward the dog park in Phoenix where it had happened, the silence would become unbearable again, even though she had been living with it for the last three days. She didn’t feel it as much when Mark was out searching for Helmut, only when he was home, padding around the house in the dark. The night before, he had knocked a lamp off the end table in the living room, and when Erica heard glass shatter, for one sickening moment, she thought that Helmut had returned.
She had wanted to hold Mark and tell him she was sorry, but she didn’t want to retell the same story of what had happened, especially because he asked for more details each time. What boys were playing with Helmut? Did they have a dog? How old were they? Why didn’t you ask them to watch Helmut till you got back? How long does it take to go to the bathroom?
That park has Porta Potties, Mark had interrupted her once, pointing out that she would rather hold it in than use a Porta Potty. He was right, but Erica wouldn’t admit it. She had walked to her car to grab a bottle of water. It was so hot she had to use the bottom hem of her shirt like an oven mitt to lift the door handle. Once inside, she started the engine and blasted the air conditioner. She didn’t mean to stay in the car for so long, but she knew that Mark wouldn’t believe her.
“Don’t put up new flyers if it’s going to rain,” Erica said, looking over at the new batch of lost dog flyers resting on Mark’s lap. Instead of “Lost Dog,” he had typed “Have You Seen Me?” in bold black letters across the top of each page, above the small print of his contact information. The rest of the flyer showed a close-up of a deep, velvety brown Labrador’s face with pink-rimmed hazel eyes and floppy ears. Erica didn’t even recognize Helmut in this picture, that bashful yet attentive look, like he yearned to please whomever he happened to meet.
“He really hates thunder and lightning,” Mark said, and Erica thought she heard a tremor in his voice.
When she stopped at the next light, she glanced over again at the back of Mark’s head, his flaxen hair curling up at the ends above his ear. He still didn’t stir, so she lowered her gaze to the large camera bag lying by his feet. She wondered why he decided to bring all his gear tonight.
“You can put up the rest of the flyers after the monsoon,” she said and Mark shot up his right arm, startling Erica. His palm landed flat across the padded ceiling of the car and slid open the sunroof, letting the weak sunlight flood the air-conditioned space inside. It felt surprisingly pleasant, like being submerged in a warm bath.
“Just for a little while,” she said as she reached over to turn off the air conditioning.
Mark dropped his arm and returned to sitting squarely in his seat, and in doing so, revealed his profile, the full lips and rounded tip of his nose, which he used to press against Erica’s stomach and inhale, as if he needed to take in everything about her. But then he turned his body yet again, like the way he would thrash in bed now that Helmut no longer slept between them. This time, he planted his beat-up sneakers on her beige car seat, balling his body into a crouching position, facing the rear window.
“What are you doing?” she asked, trying to look straight ahead and count along with the stoplight’s digital red numbers that pulsed next to the throbbing hand. She tried not to think of the dirt particles lodging themselves in the tiny holes of the leather upholstery. But what did she expect? Mark’s truck looked like it had tumbled through a vat of mud, and now its engine was shot from years of neglect.
As the numbers descended to three, then two, and finally one, Mark rose to a standing position. He grabbed hold of the edges of the open sunroof, the flyers still rolled up in his grasp. Mark eventually straightened his legs all the way so that his head, shoulders and arms disappeared through the opening.
“Come back down,” Erica yelled up at him when the light turned green. She tried to ease the car into motion again, and then she saw Helmut’s image smack into the windshield of a car driving in the opposite direction. But the instant the flyer hit the pane of glass, it seemed to bounce off and ride an invisible current rising skyward.
“You could’ve blinded the driver,” Erica yelled at Mark’s torso. “He could’ve crashed.”
A light rain began to fall when they walked into the park, where Helmut’s face in those flyers now stared back at Erica from the trees, the benches, the chain link fence, pleading “Have you seen me?” through that pitiful look. It defeated Erica every time she had scolded Helmut for tracking paw prints across her clean sheets, for scratching her buffed wood floors, for digging up her year-round green lawn.
Mark’s defense had always been, “If you were friendlier, he wouldn’t be starved for your attention.”
Erica would protest, “He’s the one barking at me. He’s the one destroying my house.”
“He’s a dog,” Mark had responded the last time they argued about this—three days ago.
“I’m a person,” Erica had said, and Mark seemed to nod, as if they had finally agreed on something. She didn’t want to argue anymore and offered to take Helmut to the dog park, as if to call his bluff. Mark, already late for an assignment, handed over the leash.
If Mark was tired of her yelling and crying about Helmut, she was tired too, even if it had only been five weeks since they moved in to her house. But every time Erica wanted to call it off, she would look at her walls and admire Mark’s photographs, which she had already framed and hung with care—pictures that glorified random parts of her body, in angles that made even the balls of her feet look sexy. Others were of the dog, and then there were images of Mark’s travels, some of which she’d bought at the downtown Artwalk where they met.
She had noticed right away that none of his pictures captured static things. The toes curled around a taut piece of rope like a high-wire act in progress caught her eye. So did the porters in red headdresses piggybacking large bundles up a mountain. When she asked him why he became a photographer, he said he wanted to capture moments so that life didn’t blur together minute by minute, day by day, year by year. She wanted that too; in fact, she may even have gasped when she said it. Erica tried to remember this about him the nights she slept in a fetal position because Helmut was lying at the foot of her bed, and she told herself that this was a test, an initiation, a testament to her readiness to embrace a new life with Mark.
She tried again to catch Mark’s eye as they walked deeper into the dog park, but he pulled ahead until he reached the chain link fence that enclosed the square field. He clung to the thick metal wires, his huge camera bag slung across his shoulder. Erica eventually caught up but stopped a few feet away and watched the handful of people still playing with their dogs beneath the darkening sky and a drizzle that misted everything it touched.
She and Mark stood apart until a dog-and-owner pair approached them from behind. Erica stared at the dog, which would have looked like a genetically modified miniature lion if the puffed-up blonde mane adorning its head didn’t also cover its entire body.
“Any luck?” the man asked Mark, who shook his head and immediately fell to his knees to scratch the dog’s triangle ears barely poking out of all that fur.
The man holding the leash hadn’t shaved in days and wore an oil-stained trucker’s cap over copper hair that fell to his shoulders. His black work boots were scuffed and likely used for their intended purpose. Erica tried to remember if he and his dog were here three days ago when she was at the park, but the man didn’t even look at her.
“We didn’t see you here this morning,” the man said to Mark. “I was telling some of the regulars you might’ve found Helmut today.”
“I wish that was it,” Mark said, as the dog licked his face with what appeared to be a black, gangrenous tongue. “My truck broke down. I knew it was on its last legs, but it’s just one thing after another … and now this rain.”
“Tough break,” the man said.
“The monsoon won’t be so bad,” Erica said before she remembered that Helmut didn’t like the rain.
This time, the man looked directly at her, and she quickly turned toward Mark just as he was grabbing the bulky camera from his bag. Mark’s bare knees were still planted on the damp yellow grass when he pointed the large lens at the dog. Erica suddenly wanted to touch the dog.
“May I?” Erica asked as she put her hand down on the dog’s head, and it disappeared inside the ridiculously dense coat. She heard the shutter click once, twice, a couple more times, like the times when Mark was still taking her picture, even if he only zoomed in on an ankle, an earlobe, a knuckle. Erica liked to believe it was his way of discovering her little by little, then slowly piecing her together.
“She usually doesn’t let just anyone touch her,” the man said, sounding surprised, and Erica felt weak with gratitude. She looked at Mark again, but he acted as though he hadn’t heard. Instead, he was twisting the lens off his camera and switching it out with an even larger lens.
“She’s some dog,” Erica said.
“Tess here saved my life,” the man said. “I fell asleep holding a cigarette, and I guess I dropped it. The carpet started to smoke, and she barked her head off till I came to and smothered it with a pillow. If it wasn’t for her, the house would’ve burned down.”
“What kind of dog is she?” Erica asked, but her voice drifted off as she watched Mark wander away with his camera and enter the enclosed space.
When Erica turned back, Tess started barking, barking at her. It wasn’t the tedious noisemaking that never seemed to tire Helmut, but a deep, guttural growl, like something dangerous had just been set off. Erica backed away, but she must have moved too fast because Tess was suddenly baring her sharp white teeth and black gums, leaping forward and snapping her leash into a straight line. Erica almost tripped, trying to get away. She didn’t understand what had changed from just a moment ago. Did Mark know his friend’s dog would react this way toward her? Was that why he left her there?
The man gripped Tess’s leash tighter. He didn’t look concerned or annoyed but matter of fact, even impressed that his dog treated any potential threat as life and death. Maybe the dog really was a lion, bred to hide inside a big lumbering puffball until it killed and dragged a body into the house one day.
Erica began walking the perimeter of the field, just outside the chain-link fence that separated her from all the other dogs. She watched Mark approach random people, and he looked like a political candidate, glad-handing the man on the street, bending on his knee for every dog, scratching every ear. No, if anything, he was campaigning for Helmut, surrounded by the flyers they had put up. It started to rain then, really rain, and as Erica looked around, she saw the remaining light of day reflect off the slick surface of all those flyers, the ink beginning to bleed along the edges so that Helmut’s image appeared both brighter and blurrier at the same time.
“I need to go to the camera shop,” Mark said after Erica had already driven halfway back to her house.
“Right now? It’s raining. Can’t we go tomorrow?”
“I need to go tonight,” he said, emphasizing the last word.
“It’s been a long day. We’re both wet. Can we please just go home and make dinner?”
Mark didn’t say anything, and when Erica stopped at a light, he unbuckled his seatbelt.
“Now what did I do?” Erica raised her voice, noticing that Mark had turned his back to her yet again. This time, his hand was squeezing the door handle—making Erica think of the type of moment that Mark liked to photograph.
“I wouldn’t ask if I had my truck,” he said, as if that was also her fault, and he pulled the handle and opened the door in the middle of the road. Her car lit up from the inside, triggering a sound like a faraway ambulance siren.
The stoplight turned green, but she kept her foot on the brake as the ringing continued, like one key being played over and over again, a sound that felt to Erica like pressing on a bruise, soon followed by the honking cars behind them before they all changed lanes and sped forward. Some came dangerously close to shearing the open door right off of Erica’s silver Volkswagen. She felt strangely calm, and when Mark finally closed the door, he was still sitting next to her. The silence set in once again, and Erica continued on their way.
“If it’s that important, I’ll take you,” Erica said a few minutes later, even as she wondered whether she should have told Mark to go, let him wander in the warm rain. But she didn’t think she could do it. She couldn’t let the water seep into the camera and corrode the delicate mechanisms inside. Because then what would he do, what would he have?
They did not speak during the ride except when Mark gave directions to the shopping center with a supermarket and an office supplies store flanked on both sides by small businesses. Erica looked for the camera shop, but Mark asked her to park in front of the office supplies store.
“Why?” she asked. “There’s plenty of empty spaces where the shops are.”
“Because …” he said, but stopped.
Erica guessed that he wanted more color ink cartridges to print more flyers. She wanted to point out that she had already spent hundreds of dollars on ink and paper, but she didn’t want to argue. It had stopped raining, so she parked in the first empty space she found, granting Mark this one small request. Once they left the car, Erica quickened her step to keep up with him as he cut across the parking lot toward a shop under the sign: Cameras and More—New, Used, Trade.
Mark held the door open for Erica, and she felt relieved at the gesture. They walked into an empty store, inhabited by lenses and cameras encased inside glass counters on their left and right sides. Framed photos of desert landscapes, wildflowers, rock formations and classic cars beamed out from the walls in colors as bright and opaque as candy coatings. Erica wondered what Mark thought of these pictures, but he didn’t seem to look at anything as he leaned against the counter. Under fluorescent lights, Erica could see mud caked onto Mark’s knees, his black T-shirt a mosaic of dark spots that had not yet dried, his arms crossed, and she reached her hand out slightly, wanting to touch him but not knowing where or how to begin.
“Is anyone there?” he called out, as if in response to her intentions.
A short, balding man with curly black hair and round gold-framed glasses emerged from the back of the store and stood behind the counter across from Mark and Erica. Mark unzipped his case and set his camera on the glass surface. He detached the lens, which was roughly the size of a beer can, the texture of its outer barrel alternating between rubbery, crosshatched ridges and a smooth and shiny black finish. And circling the middle of the lens was a ring of tiny white numbers, which seemed to glow in the dull light.
“How much can you give me for this?” Mark asked and placed the lens in the clerk’s open hands.
Erica grabbed Mark’s arm just above the elbow. She leaned into him, touching her left cheek against the back of his shoulder, that part of his shirt still damp from the rain.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked, eyeing the lens, as the clerk turned the ring of numbers with his thumb like it was a manual radio dial, stopping momentarily at each digit, each decimal.
Mark had once pointed that very lens at her. Seeing it now struck her the way a severed limb would. It left a gaping hole in the center of the camera’s rectangular black body.
Mark still hadn’t answered.
“Nine hundred,” the clerk said when he looked up.
“I paid twenty-five hundred for this lens,” Mark said.
“I can give you nine hundred dollars,” Erica said in a low voice.
“This is a pretty old model,” the clerk said. “They don’t even make the bodies for this lens mount anymore.”
“Why are you doing this?” Erica repeated but her voice came out quiet and shaky this time. She wanted to recall for him all the images he had taken over the years—vigilantes toting guns along the border, a dust cloud about to swallow Phoenix, a performer plucking the strings of her guitar. These scenes were now displayed across the walls of Erica’s bedroom, her living room, her office, like windows into an alternate universe. And when Mark was in bed with her, when he was taking her picture, his gaze seemed to welcome her inside this universe.
“I have to tell you something,” she said, raising her voice, and finally Mark and the clerk stopped and looked at her. “I didn’t love Helmut as much as you did and I wasn’t as careful as I could have been. He really was playing with some kids, but I left him there longer than I should have. People make mistakes. I’m sorry.”
Mark’s eyes were reddened and weary, and his expression seemed flattened, as if all depth had been erased by a strange angle of the light.
“I’ll give you a thousand dollars,” Erica said, still holding on to Mark’s arm. “You can do whatever you want, offer it as a reward, fix your truck.”
After a moment, Mark said, “You should know something, too.”
He paused before continuing.
“I fell in love with your house the first time I saw it, the big yard, the trees, the shade, it was perfect for Helmut.”
“So what are you saying?” Erica asked.
“You’re right, people make mistakes,” he said and turned back to the clerk.
Erica let go of his arm, and Mark didn’t move. He didn’t seem to notice when she walked toward the door of the camera shop. Instead, he continued to negotiate, and as the door was about to close, she heard him plead to the clerk, “What do you say, a thousand?”
Sandy Yang has an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Santa Monica Review, The Los Angeles Review, Flyway, South Dakota Review, Monkeybicycle and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles. To read more of her work, go to sandyyang.yolasite.com.