When my first wife moved out, she took the pictures of our basset hound and left the pictures of our honeymoon. She took the kitchen appliances we received as wedding presents. She took the bed we bought with our first tax return.
It was the end of summer. There were papers scattered around the front room. Our health insurance statement, our car insurance statement, and our homeowner’s insurance statement were in a loose pile where our desk used to be. I pulled the twin mattress from the guest bedroom into the middle of the living room. The dog sat by the front door, whining.
I slept with the lights on. The ceiling fan spun overhead, casting shadows on the ceiling. I woke up around midnight and let the dog outside. When I woke up again to his scratching at the back door, the sun was coming up.
I rubbed my eyes as he walked in the door, the fur on his paws and long ears wet with dew. He had never stayed outside all night. I figured he must have been waiting for my first wife’s car to pull into the driveway. “Sorry, boy,” I said. “I don’t think she’s coming home.” The dog shook the dew out of his fur and looked up at me, drool collecting in the corner of his mouth.
I made coffee and went on the front porch to smoke a cigarette. The mosquitoes were so bad that summer they swarmed throughout the night and into the morning, when you expected them to be sleeping. I exhaled clouds of smoke wherever I saw one circling. My dad told me growing up that mosquitoes didn’t like smoke. When we went camping, I always sat in the trail of smoke from the campfire, hoping to keep them away. My cigarette burned down to the filter. The day was already hot.
I took inventory of the things my first wife left behind: one large plate, one small plate, one fork, one knife, one spoon, a whisk, a small filing cabinet, two pillows, a wool blanket, an 8×10 photograph from our wedding. I piled all of these things in the living room next to the twin mattress and thought about how easily they would fit in a box, or a fire pit.
The dog sniffed at the pile of things. He looked confused. “That makes two of us,” I said, not knowing what else to say. I sat down on the tile and leaned against the drywall. The dog put his head in my lap. I scratched behind his ears and picked up the wedding photo. Each guest had written their advice around the matte border. I read the tiny inscriptions out loud to the dog.
“Never go to bed angry. Never criticize each other, even in jest. Always say ‘I love you’ first thing in the morning. Eat a light lunch and a reasonable dinner. Maximize your productivity by making a series of small goals you know you can accomplish. Reinstall your operating system every six to twelve months. Remember how to tie a necktie by repeating to yourself, ‘Over, under, around, and through.’ Paint the backside of a tick with fingernail polish so that you don’t accidentally break off its head.”
The air conditioner kicked on. The weather forecast said to expect record highs.
I took the dog for a long walk that afternoon. We were both out of shape. We walked through a neighborhood of houses built from only three different blueprints. They were different colors, but you could recognize them by their front porches. One had columns, one had an archway, and one had a railing. I counted them off. “One,” I said to my dog as we passed a house with columns. “Two,” I said as we passed one with an archway. “Three,” I said as we passed one with a railing.
We followed the road until it dead-ended into an open field. A footpath picked up where the pavement ended. We kept walking. Sweat stung my eyes.
Around a patch of trees, we came to a small pond. A young boy was on the bank, poking something with a stick. I smelled decay as we got closer. The dog sniffed the air.
“What’s that?” I asked. The boy stepped back. A small dead alligator was on the ground beside him.
“I didn’t do it,” he said.
“You have to get a permit to kill alligators,” I said.
“I was just poking it.”
“Looks like it’s been dead a while.”
“Is it true they make wallets out of them?”
I nodded. “Shoes, too.” The dog strained at the end of the leash. The baby alligator’s skin was split open. Something had been eating its innards.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Miguel,” the boy said. “Come home with me, Miguel. My house is empty.”
“What kind of dog is that?” he asked. “What’s his name?”
“What do you think his name should be?” I asked.
“Noodle,” Miguel said without hesitating.
“Noodle is a good name,” I said, petting the dog on the head. “We’re going to call you Noodle.” The dog’s tongue hung out the side of his mouth. My first wife had named him without asking me. “What do you want for dinner, Miguel? I was thinking about making macaroni and cheese.”
“I love macaroni and cheese. My mom makes it for me when my dad has to work late.”
“Mine, too,” I said.
We were both sweaty when we got back to the house. Noodle lay on the white tile, spreading his legs out to let more of his surface area touch the cool floor. Miguel poked through my books. “You read a lot,” he said, “but you don’t have a lot of furniture. Where do you sit when you read?”
I pointed to a corner of the living room. “Over there,” I said. “I just bundle up a blanket and put it behind me.”
“That’s a funny way to sit,” Miguel said.
“I need to take a shower,” I said.
“You do kind of smell,” he said.
“You, too. There are towels in the guest bathroom if you need one.”
“What can I wear?” he asked, pointing to his shirt. It was soaked with sweat and covered in dirt stains.
“I’ll pull something out for you,” I said. I dug through my clothes, pulling out the smallest ones I could find. I laid out a pair of gym shorts and an old football shirt I wore to do yard work.
“Thanks,” Miguel said. I shut the bathroom door.
When I came back out to the living room, Miguel was sitting in the corner with a blanket bunched up behind his back, reading Don Quixote. “Have you ever read that?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“Neither have I,” I said. “I hear it’s good.”
“It’s okay so far,” he said. My clothes were too big for him.
“I’m going to start a wash. I’ll throw in your clothes,” I said. Miguel didn’t look up from his book. After I started the washing machine, I poked my head back into the living room. “I’ll have dinner ready in fifteen minutes.” Miguel kept reading.
I put the plates of macaroni and cheese on the dining room table and Miguel sat down with me to eat.
“Your house is almost empty,” Miguel said, chewing.
“My wife left,” I said. “She took most of our stuff.”
“Are you sad?”
“What about Noodle?”
“I think so.”
“Do you love her?”
“I used to, but not anymore.”
“Is she pretty?”
Miguel scraped the last of the orange cheese-flavored paste off his plate, then sat down in the corner and started reading again.
“You can sleep out here,” I said, pointing to the mattress on the floor. “I’ll take the bedroom. Turn out the light when you’re done.”
I laid a blanket out flat on the carpet in the bedroom and put some dirty clothes under my head for a pillow. My first wife always said she didn’t want kids. She wanted to get a PhD. She wanted to work for a non-profit. I wondered what she would think of Miguel, how she would find him socially relevant, what clothes she would want me to dress him in. I stared up at the fan, then got up and turned it off. The electricity bill was due.
I woke up before Miguel the next morning and went outside to smoke. The mosquitoes landed between the hairs on my arm. I watched one insert its proboscis into my skin. It left behind a blood smear when I slapped it.
Miguel came outside halfway through my cigarette and sat with me on the porch. My gym shorts went down past his knees. “You shouldn’t smoke,” he said. “My grandmother died from cancer.”
“Mine, too,” I said. “Will you call my wife?”
“Sure,” Miguel said. I dialed the number on my cell phone and hit send before handing it to him. I lit another cigarette. Miguel gave me an annoyed look, but held the phone to his face. “Hello,” he said when she picked up the phone. “No, this is Miguelito. I’m here with Shane. He says he’s doing fine. We gave your dog a new name. I think he likes it better. We’re calling him Noodle.”
“Tell her I didn’t even notice that she took anything,” I said.
“Shane says he doesn’t even know what you took. Probably nothing important, he says.” The boy’s voice sounded as nonchalant as I’d hoped.
“Tell her the dog doesn’t miss her.”
“Noodle doesn’t even miss you. He doesn’t sit by the front door whining or anything. Okay. I’ll tell him.” Miguel hung up the phone.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“She said not to call her any more. She said she’s moving to Miami.”
I thought about that for a while and lit another cigarette. “Makes sense,” I said.
“She sounded pretty. Are you sure you don’t want her back?”
“One day you’ll understand,” I said. “Who wants Pop-Tarts?”
“Pop-Tarts it is.”
Miguel’s school was less than a mile from my house. We walked together on the side of the road, the dew soaking into the fabric of our shoes. The school buses lined up beside us. I drove by the school almost every day, but had never been inside. Miguel and I walked up to the front of the building and one of the teachers came over to us.
“Good morning, Miguel,” she said. Miguel smiled. “Who’s this?” She looked up at me.
“That’s Mr. Hinton,” Miguel said.
The teacher reached out to shake my hand. “Mr. Hinton, there’s a PTA meeting after school. Can we expect to see you there?”
I nodded. “Have a good day, Miguel,” I said. The boy looked back over his shoulder at me and smiled as he walked into the building.
I showed up early for the PTA meeting. Miguel came down a wide staircase in the middle of the school to meet me. “How was your day?” I asked. “Do you have any homework?”
“Nah,” Miguel said. I knew he was lying, but I didn’t care. I wanted to take him back to the pond, to see if the baby alligator was still there. I thought maybe we could skin it and make something together. Maybe we could make him a new pair of shoes to wear to school.
The PTA meeting was in the cafeteria. The teacher I’d met that morning held the door open for us. “Good to see you,” she said. “There are refreshments at the back of the room.”
Miguel grabbed a juice box and a cookie from the refreshment table. I picked up a small bag of chips but put it back down. I had to start watching my weight. We sat in the back row.
The principal took the stage and stood behind a podium. “Let’s get the meeting started,” she said. “We have a few items on the agenda today. Number one: bugs. We all know it’s been a terrible summer for mosquitoes and ticks. Some of us have contracted Lyme disease. One of our best science teachers is out in New Mexico for the rest of the semester being treated. It’s hit the science department pretty hard. They can’t even bring themselves to properly maintain their equipment.” The principal gestured to a group of teachers standing together against a wall. Their heads were lowered in shame. “We’re not even sure we can have a science fair if morale stays this low,” she said.
The crowd murmured. Miguel pulled on my sleeve and I leaned down so he could whisper to me. “I already started my experiment,” he said. “It’s about what kind of cheese grows mold the quickest. I had to spend twenty dollars on cheese.” The boy looked worried. I raised my hand. The principal pointed at me.
“I know how much the science fair means to these students,” I said, gesturing to Miguel. “I’m willing to donate one year’s supply of bug spray to the school, to be sent home with every student and faculty member, in order to assure that there are no missed educational opportunities. Let’s not forget who the dominant species is here. Are we going to let a few ticks keep our kids from reaching their full potential?”
A teacher in the front row stood up and turned around to look at me. She started clapping. The rest of the room picked it up, and pretty soon the cafeteria was ringing with applause. I waved. The principal closed the meeting. “Don’t let anyone say I never solve problems,” she said. “Meeting adjourned.”
Miguel and I walked Noodle back to the pond. The sun was going down and the mosquitoes were especially thick. Miguel slapped one on his neck, and then one on his forehead, and before long he was covered in bloody dots. When we got back to the pond we looked everywhere for the dead alligator, but couldn’t find it. “Something must have eaten it,” Miguel said. “You’re not going to give us the bug spray, are you?”
“Why do you think that?”
“You don’t have any money. You can’t even afford furniture.”
It was true. I hadn’t adjusted my budget to account for not having my wife’s income. I did the numbers in my head quickly and realized that I’d be coming up short every month. “I guess not,” I said.
“It’s okay,” Miguel said. “I hate that place. Everyone is mean to me.”
“What about your cheeses?” I asked.
“Cheese is made from mold,” he said, throwing a stick out into the pond. Noodle swam out to get it, and as he swam back to shore a small alligator slid into the water from the opposite bank.
SHANE HINTON holds an MFA from the University of Tampa. His fiction has appeared in The Butter, Word Riot, storySouth, Fiction Advocate, and elsewhere. His debut story collection, Pinkies, is out now from Burrow Press.He lives in the winter strawberry capital of the world.
Excerpted from Pinkies by Shane Hinton. Copyright © 2015 by Shane Hinton. Excerpted with permission by Burrow Press.