de Michael Báez
Mornings never changed for Mariela. The alarm clock rang, she jumped out of bed and brushed her teeth. Normal. That is, until one looked twice at her pillow and found a dachshund had taken its place. Thomson jumped right after her. Everyone in Sleek Neighborhood had a four-legged companion. It was an unspoken law all of them knew by heart. But Mariela loathed the real reason: those bundles of joy were an excuse for cheap food.
Nourishment was hard to come by. With $4.25 per hour, Sleek Neighborhood knew their place. On a good night Mariela would eat right out of Thomson’s bowl, on a bad one she wouldn’t eat at all. It’d been years since she’d thought about what she was eating or why. Mariela’s stomach simply yearned to be full.
Nevertheless, Thomson liked to share. He didn’t bark or growl. He simply moved a bit to the side and slipped his wet snout between Mariela’s porcelain cheeks and the bowl. Mariela adored feeling him inhale and exhale against her cheek. It wasn’t the perfect life, but it was a life.
On this morning, June 31st 2016, Mariela woke to an empty fridge.
“Guess what today is,” Mariela petted Thomson’s flappy ears. His uncontrollable wagging tail made her smile. “That’s right. It’s payday.”
Thomson rushed to the front door, scratching his tiny paws against the worn out wood.
Mariela strapped on his leash and opened the door. “Let’s go grocery shopping.”
Walking to the supermarket had become their therapy. The world outside Sleek Neighborhood thrived with cars, fine clothing, and full meals. To anyone else it was a burden, but not to Mariela and Thomson. Someday they would join that world.
The market door swooshed open. The air conditioner caressed Mariela’s skin. Living in a small studio with one tiny window and no fan was quite a drag. It had been years since she’d entered a market without Thomson. When your best friend is your ticket to cheap food, you take it. She couldn’t imagine a life without him. Who would feed her? Who would double as her pillow?
Mariela sped past the vegetable, fruit, and canned food aisles and right into the pet section. There was no use in torturing herself with things she couldn’t afford. Neither the sparkling apples nor the juiciest grapefruits would pay for themselves. Prices had skyrocketed after the government had decided to increase the sales tax. Now a single apple could come up to $5. It was hard to remember what pulp felt like.
Thomson barked and snapped Mariela out of her memories.
“What’d you want this week?” Mariela hauled two bags off the shelves. The things weighed a ton. Good thing too. They would be more than enough. “Chicken or shrimp?”
“You can’t have both,” Mariela sighed. “I know. I know. Believe me. But we’ve only got enough money for one.”
Thomson pointed with his snout to the shrimp-flavored bag.
“Someone’s feeling fancy this week,” Mariela smiled. “So be it, prince dachshund.”
After an excruciating three-minute line, Mariela and Thomson reached the register. The cashier squatted next to Thomson and scanned his dog tag. A green light flashed across his terminal and the register unlocked.
“Just one more day and we’ll all be able to stop eating this rubbish,” The cashier scanned the shrimp-flavored bag. “Food’s gonna be cheap again.”
“What’re you talking about?” Mariela was often lost. Without any money for a TV, cellphone, or newspaper, she was out of the loop.
“Don’t ya worry,” He flashed a look at Thomson. “Tomorrow’s a brand new day.”
Night descended and Thomson and Mariela stuffed their bellies with enough dog food to explode. Lying on her bed, Mariela scratched Thomson’s belly. It was a shame she couldn’t be like that forever. Tomorrow was another day of hard work for a miserable pay. Mariela wished she could play hokey and stay with Thomson. The tufts of fur soothed her to sleep.
Mariela awoke to a bed without a pillow. Thomson was AWOL this morning. He’d probably gone out for a stroll to meet one of his many girlfriends. He was quite popular with the ladies. Mariela didn’t think much of it. She got ready for work. If she was late again, there was no way she was going to get that raise. Five dollars an hour meant one more bag a week.
Mariela’s heels clip-clopped against the concrete. Approaching a hot dog vendor, she pondered how much she had left in the bank. She licked her lips and asked, “How much for a frankfurter?”
“I’ve got pure-breed Schnauzer for $1, and Beagle or Bulldog for$2.” The hot dog man said. “If none of those sound appetizing, I’m getting a fresh shipment of Chameleon and feline franks by noon. Those’ll be $1.50 each.”
“You mustn’t joke like that,” Mariela groaned. “That’s not very nice.”
The hot dog man refused to acknowledge her words. He was busy taking orders from the long line of stomachs growling louder than yellow taxi’s honking their horns at rush hour.
Out of the corner of her eye, Mariela caught a familiar face hiding behind the metallic newspaper dispenser. She approached, curious. Sunlight bounced off the metal and almost blinded her. Only when she saw the headline did she realize the sun had been doing her a favor. Thomson’s picture stared back at her from the front page. The headline made Mariela’s gut wrench.
Words escaped her almost automatically. “Reform is a success: Thomson the dachshund first dog in new food lineup.”