She’s a thin woman, unnaturally so, and it’s the kind of skinny that isn’t healthy or wears well on a woman, or a dog, or anyone else for that matter. It’s a neglectful kind of thinness, the same manner of rib showing that someone who suddenly remembers they haven’t fed the dog, for a while, sees one day in a suddenly epiphany. Her hair is a cropped mane that looks like it got caught in a car door and she cut it off with a piece of glass rather than opening the door again, and you can see this in this woman; she’s made some decisions that really make no sense to the rest of us, who are not her. Why not just open the door rather than cut your hair with a broken bottle? There is a story there, and she will tell it, if you ask.
The smell, more than anything else, the smell. You wonder why dogs take such an interest in scent? Dogs not only have a much better sense of smell than we do they are also more attuned in what the smells mean. You bring home a strange dog from the road and your resident dogs know this mutt is a stray. They know this dog hasn’t been petted or fed or loved. They can smell the lack of home. And sometimes they are hostile to these dogs, because they really do not know what else to feel about something like this.
She starts out overpolite, over the top polite, and it’s “Please sir, if you could just give me a ride to the next exit, my mother dying of lung cancer and my children starving to death, and I just got fired from my job and I got kicked out of my house because my husband was cheating with my twin sister and a dingo took my baby.” She doesn’t say any of this, of course, but it’s a sad story, and she needs so little from the rest of the world, and she ends it with, “I’m hoping that I will find someone with a heart.”
The smell is the odor of a human body left out in the sun too long. Not the healthy smell of a hard working woman who got out in the yard and planted tulips and mowed grass and maybe took a crate out and picked squash because her son didn’t show up to do it and she’ll show him, dammit. I went to a friend’s house once and then we went to a field where they would let you pick all the black eyed peas you wanted for five dollars a hamper, and all I wanted was a couple of handfuls, but I was willing to help out. They had a freezer and wanted to put some away, so sure. There was a woman there who had been out in the sun for a couple of hours, the middle of the day sun, too, and I started talking to her. She was there helping someone fill a freezer, and I asked her out. She laughed at me, took off her bandana and wiped her face and asked me, “Are you nuts?” But think about it. You know you’ve seen her at her very worst and very best all in one place in one time. You know what she smells like, really smells like, when she hasn’t taken a shower and she’s covered with honest hard work dirt. Sitting across a table in a restaurant would be easy at this point, and I said so.
But the woman at Exit 29, off I-75, has a different smell. This is not the smell of garlic, like I carry with me in my body, and those of my tribe carry, too. We garlic eaters know what people say, and we care not at all about it. But this woman has been eating chemicals, not food. She’s been drinking chemicals, not food. She’s been walking down the road trying to get a ride, not working. She’s been doing this for a while now, and any dog could tell you that she is a stray, and she hasn’t been fed, or petted.
She tells me her name is Wendy, and that she works for the store in Quitman and I don’t tell her that I live just South of that town, and I know a few people there. I don’t tell her I shop there once a week, at least, because she isn’t really lying to me; she’s spinning fiction. What you and I see in people, as resident dogs, is a lot different than what we see in strays, is it not? We don’t see Wendy as a resident dog. Wendy is a stray. Hackles up! Horripilate! Ears back and voices raised.
Wendy tells me she’s recently divorced, and this too is a creation of fiction, not a lie. In the world of the stray, fiction is the currency of the world, whereas you and I might deal with money to get what we need, Wendy spins fiction, and she hopes to make a living, in a manner of speaking, doing it. We’re getting close now, to her destination, and she tells me she living too close to the bad section of town, and she doesn’t like black men or brown men, but she does like white men. She smiles at me when she says this, teeth not showing because some are missing, and she’s learned to not show her teeth. She has rolled over on her back, belly up, and waits…
She sits still when we pull up to gas station where she is supposed to meet someone. I hate to ask you for money but I haven’t eaten in a couple of days and… This may be the first close truth Wendy has spoken to me, but it doesn’t matter; I never carry cash.
As I pull away Wendy goes inside, and I wonder if she’ll be alive tomorrow. Strays are often killed on the road, and those of us who rescue strays cannot rescue them all, we know this, so we choose the ones we think can better survive than the others. We do this with humans, too, even if we won’t admit it. We will let Wendy die, let her stay out in the sun, and we won’t look back because she has missing teeth, she smells bad, she’s bad terrible choices, spins fiction, and there are people we know we can help, and they will survive on their own, and there is no risk in this sort of salvation because we have money and good judgement and haircuts.