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Reward Posters by Cody McCafferty

 

Cody McCafferty likes cheesy rock riffs and irreverent humor. This is his first publication.

I'm awakened by a prodding wet dog nose again, because Princess or Precious or whatever has to piss and shit. Without opening my eyes I can tell that it’s late morning, because it’s hot in my van. I slide open the door, and my Pomeranian passenger hops down to do her business. I sit in the doorframe of the van and stretch my arms and wish I had a cigarette, while I avoid looking directly at what my new canine friend unleashes on the earth. When she’s done, she climbs her tiny front paws up my legs and stares at me, tongue out and tail wagging. I pet her well-groomed head and we take off.

I stole her. I’ve stolen dozens just like her. I take dogs from only the finest suburban neighborhoods. The best time to do this is in the middle of the day while the maid is cleaning. This means the wife went shopping and the husband went working.

The maid throws the dog in the backyard and listens to her iPod while she vacuums and Swiffers and steals seventy-five cents for the toll way. Clearly the best time to steal a dog. The neighbors aren’t home. The neighbors are shopping and working, too. The only people in these mini-mansions are maids, poor things.

When I first started, I used to be careful and elaborate (official-looking hat, clipboard), but now I just walk in the backyard and take them.

.  .  .

The first time I stole a dog was a couple of years ago after I had gone to see a movie by myself, which I had never done before. I had been working the graveyard shift at UPS since I graduated high school five years prior. I didn’t really have any friends left from my high school days because of my fucked-up schedule, so the only people I ever had the opportunity to hang out with were people from work. Most were mongoloids or ex-cons, and the few who weren’t lacked personality.

One day I was watching TV alone in my efficiency like usual, and this preview came on for a very awesome-looking action movie with promises of comic relief. I convinced myself that seeing a movie alone was better than sitting alone in my apartment.

I got to my seat during the last preview. It was the first show of the day so there were only a handful of people in the theater. Half an hour into the movie I had finished my popcorn, and I’d rolled my eyes probably fifty times. The movie sucked. I was looking around at the other people in the theater to see if they were as unimpressed as I was. If they were, they weren’t showing any outward signs of it. I thought about how if I left right then, I could still get my money back. The movie had no redeeming value, and I wondered how such a stupid piece of shit could have made it to the theaters. I knew I needed to leave.

I stayed though, and when I left the theater I was pissed off at myself for wasting eight dollars. Why didn’t I just leave? I repeated to myself over and over on the ride home. The whole reason I went to a movie by myself was so I could do something like leave in the middle of it, and I just sat there like an asshole. But, if I hadn’t left the movie when I did, and if I hadn’t been sufficiently pissed off and ready to give up on normal life, the whole dog stealing thing wouldn’t have started.

I pulled up to a stop sign, brows furrowed and muttering to myself, and I noticed a dog sniffing around a telephone pole. I looked slightly higher up on the pole, and saw a reward sign describing that same dog. My heart started beating fast because I thought I might scare away the money. I opened my van door slowly and quietly.

“Come here, buddy,” I tried to sound as loving as possible and held out my hand. It didn’t matter how I sounded though because my hands reeked of popcorn. The dog didn’t hesitate for a second. It walked over and started licking my hands viciously. I picked it up and said, “You just made my day,” or something like that. When I returned the lost pet, the owner was grateful to the tune of three-hundred dollars. That was a few years ago, and I’ve been doing this ever since.

.  .  .

By now I’ve stolen so many dogs that it’s become routine, a full time job. I don’t even have to stop my van to feed the dog that I stole two days ago. I have a huge bag of dog chow in the van, within arm’s reach, but not enough money to buy myself a sandwich. I dunk a small bowl into the chow, place it in front of my latest abductee, and decide we should wait until after noon, so I just keep driving around.

I leave the windows down because I don’t have A/C, and I notice for the first time that she doesn’t stick her head out the window like most dogs do. She kind of makes me feel like I should entertain her, tell some jokes or something, break the ice. Every now and then I detect a pronounced sigh of boredom. She is a weird dog. She reminds me of myself sitting in that theater wanting to leave but not being able to, which has been on my mind lately.

It’s noon now, so the owner is probably luncheon-ing with her classy bitch friends, distracted. I stop at a park to stretch my legs and use the payphone. While my stolen dog struggles tirelessly against its short leash trying to sniff passing dogs’ asses, I make the call.

“Hello?” I hear from the other end. A woman’s voice.

“Hi, uh, I just wanted to let you know that I found your dog,” I say. She tells some people in the background to quiet down. I can hear giggling and forks hitting plates. I was right, she is at lunch.

“Where was she?” she asks.

“Well, I was driving home from work and I saw her digging in some garbage cans,” I say. I have said that sentence so many times that I wonder for a moment if I don’t sound convincing enough. “It was off of Raymond Street, near that Shell station,” I add for authenticity. I don’t mention the reward sign. It’s too obvious. I’m just doing a good deed.

After a moment of silence, she clears her throat. “Okay, great,” she says. “I’ll be home at about two. Do you think you could bring her by?”

“Sure thing,” I say.

“What did you say your name was?”

I had forgotten to think of a name again. I try never to use the same name in case anyone ever catches on. I quickly utter, “James,” a default name. I’ve become sloppy.

“Um... Okay,” she says. “Do you know how to get to the house?”

“Let’s see, her tag says Leary Lane. That’s off Riverdale, right?”

“Right. Okay, James, thanks. I’ll see you at two.”

After we hang up, I look out over the park, watch some dogs running around. Something was off about that call. She didn’t seem very excited about getting her dog back. Owners always sound so excited to find out that their dog didn’t get sucked into the undercarriage of an eighteen-wheeler. They always assume the worst and are therefore usually thrilled, sometimes very emotional when I call them, but she sounded almost apathetic. This worries me.

People generally tend to think that their dogs care about them, that their dogs will miss them, and won’t simply love the next human with a bag of Beggin’ Strips. I mean, they don’t know it’s not bacon. The dogs don’t seem to care at all when I liberate them. Why would they? A dog is always willing to go on an unexpected adventure, because dogs weren’t really meant to be held captive the way they are, humanized. So when I steal a dog, I leave the gate open so it’s not the dog’s fault for running away. Someone, probably some thoughtless kid trying to retrieve a wayward ball, left the gate open and Fluffy ran away.

Rich people love their dogs, and they don’t mind telling other people how much it costs to buy a purebred whose mother was a direct offspring of Westminster Kennel Club’s first place in the sporting breed. This means that the day after a dog escapes, or sometimes that same day, they put signs up.

I wait until the day after next to call the number from the reward sign. I try my hardest to sound sincere. It’s almost always the wife’s cell phone number. Wives that don’t have jobs, whose jobs are to spend money. Stay-at-home moms who are never home. They’re out paying for mani-pedis and fake tans and babysitters. Professional money spenders. Lucky me.

Some people just have different concepts of what things are worth. Some will pay twenty-five dollars for a bar of soap or a hundred-and-fifty dollars for a pillow, and therefore don’t mind paying a thousand dollars for a dog. I can’t complain. I usually get a reward of about half of what they paid for the dog originally. Half of an eight-hundred or thousand dollar dog will feed me for a month at least, monetarily speaking. I blow the rest on gas and cigarettes mostly and steal a dog when I know the funds are lowering.

The owners feel bad when they see me. I’m visibly poor, they’re visibly rich. They don’t know that I don’t have bills or rent to pay, that I live mostly out of a van, that I drive all over the country, that I have decided to take an intermission during my life. They want to help me, to reach out to someone. I dupe rich people because they can afford to pay the way. I don’t hate them really, they’re just easy targets.

.  .  .

Her house looks familiar as I pull up to it. Not because I was here a couple of days ago stealing a dog, but because every house I steal from looks pretty much the same: big and fancy, bricks and façade, beautiful and functional. I ring the doorbell, pooch in hand, and from inside I hear the lady say, “Come in.” As I do so, I set the dog down, and it stays right there and looks straight up at me. I guess it’s used to me, and it either doesn’t care or doesn’t realize that it’s home now.

“I’m in the kitchen,” calls the lady. “Just have a seat in the living room. I’m fixing her some din-din. I’ll be there in a minute.” The dog runs excitedly towards the voice in the kitchen while I find and sit on a big, comfy love seat. The house smells great. There are scented candles lit on the coffee table.

I can hear the reunion of dog and master. It’s the same shit as always, “Ooohhh, there you are! I missed you sooo much! Mwah-mwah-mwah.” To me it sounds more like the ch-ching of an old-time cash register.

As usual, I admit to myself that it feels great to be in such a nice house, with its AC cranked high and its faux-finished walls giving off that textured feeling of permanence. There is a large portrait of husband and wife hanging above the mantle. They’re dressed in expensive-looking casual wear, and the wife is holding the dog in her lap while the husband hovers behind them both. They’re in their late twenties or early thirties maybe. The wife looks familiar to me, probably because she looks like so many of the women I’ve done this to before.

She finally walks into the living room through the entrance behind me, cradling the dog. She sits in the middle of the couch across from me, and smiles.

“Thank you so much, James,” she says. There is a sense of vacancy in her voice.

“Oh, of course,” I say. “How’d she get out?”

She is staring off to one side and after a brief silence she says, “You don’t remember me, do you?”

I realize finally why she looked so familiar in the portrait. She was the first, the lady whose dog I found that day after the movie. They must have moved since then. She is noticeably upset that I didn’t recognize her. Or maybe it’s because I didn’t recognize her dog after stealing it the second time.

I don’t know what to say. I can feel my pulse throbbing in my neck. I swallow hard. I just sit there and watch as she pets her pseudo-child. Why wouldn’t she have called the police? She had obviously figured out my whole scheme while we were on the phone earlier, had known that she was talking to the man to whom she had previously given three-hundred dollars for what she thought was finding her dog.

“I’ll just go,” I mumble as I stand up. As I begin walking towards the front door, she stands up. The dog in her lap jumps off swiftly and starts wagging her tail frantically.

“Please,” she almost shouts. “You don’t have to go.” We stand looking at each other for a moment until she walks over and stands right in front of me. I cock my head slightly, confused. My face wants to scrunch sourly in surprise but I keep it together, simply lift my eyebrows. The dog at our feet is the most excited I’ve ever seen her. She is spinning in small circles with her tongue out. She must be able to sense something unusual in her owner.

“What’s your name?” I ask her, finally noticing how pretty she is. Her breathing is heavy and deliberate. She looks nervous but determined, and blinks a little “I-know-what-the-fuck-I’m-doing” blink, and a “this-is-my-movie-and-I’m-bored” blink. She ignores my question, and instead brings her hands up to my face and pulls me into a soft kiss. I haven’t touched a woman in months, and my brain starts to feel like it’s floating a little. She tastes great, like Listerine and lip gloss, but I can’t help noticing that her hands smell like a mixture of expensive lotion and dog fur.

She pushes me back into the love seat and straddles me. My hands are firmly squeezing her waist, and I’m trying to decide if it’s too soon into our tryst to take off her shirt. Part of me thinks that this poised pedigree is ready for me to fill all her cheap fantasies of fucking a young and seemingly insane drifter, like a chapter out of a dime novel. The other part of me is worried that if I have sex with her, I won’t get my reward money.

Just as my hand finishes snaking its way up the front of her shirt and finds its cupped target, a mechanical hum comes from the direction of the kitchen. It only takes a second to realize that this means her husband just opened the garage door: hopefully it was from halfway down the block. She jumps off my lap and grunts. A quick “come here!” and her obedient furball runs up onto the couch and into her arms.

“Be cool, follow me” she tells me as she lets out an almost unnoticeable sigh to herself.

She means that her husband is about to walk in, and we are supposed to act like we were just talking about how I found their dog off Raymond Street near the Shell station digging in some garbage cans. She grabs me by the hand and we walk to the foyer. She says, “I never told him about you or the reward the first time. I just said she found her way back home.”

I wonder why, but don’t ask, because we can hear the kitchen door opening. She smiles at her husband when he walks in, holds their dog up to eye level, and says, “Looky who’s back, it’s our little escape artist.” She is an expert liar. What a turn-on.

“Oh, that’s great, honey!” he says as she hands the dog to him. “Paul Jacobs,” he says, referring to himself as we shake hands. He’s smiling, genuinely happy. I kind of feel bad. He’s obviously a very caring and loving husband who thinks he has provided his wife with everything she could have ever wanted: a nice house, occasional fine dining, rich friends, and of course a primped and prized little bundle of Toy Pomeranian.

“Hi, I’m James,” I say, also smiling, as I point to their dog. “I found that little trickster rummaging through some garbage. Good thing she has a tag, eh?”

“It sure is,” he says. “Thanks for getting her back to us, James.” I sense he’s uncomfortable having me in his house, like I might steal pills from a medicine cabinet or something. He wants me out of here. “Did my wife tell you about the reward?”

“Oh, that’s okay,” I lie. I know there’s no way he’ll let me walk out of here without taking his money. He will insist. He saw my van when he pulled up, and he couldn’t consider himself a decent person if he let a sad sack of shit like me walk away empty-handed.

When he hands me the cash, I shake his hand more genuinely than I’ve shaken anyone’s in a long time, and I thank him, having just then decided that I will never steal a dog again. I look over at his wife and nod as I say, “Glad I could help.” She smiles desperately as I raise my hand in an awkward wave goodbye.

When I get onto the highway, I drive my van in the direction of what I used to call home.