The sun raced through the cloudless sky toward zenith and burned off the thick morning dew. Stella navigated the quiet streets of Mineral Springs at cautious speed. Her new friend sat stock still in the passenger seat facing forward with a look of determined solemnity rather than hanging out the passenger window and allowing all the world’s scents to blow back her floppy ears. Staring through the windshield the doggo didn’t even blink like they were about to make the jump to hyperspace and she didn’t want to miss it. Something fluttered in Stella’s chest, but she wasn’t sure if it was joy or anxiety.
Before she’d left the shelter, the caretaker made her sign a few forms and warned, “She’s been here for about two weeks. We think she was abandoned by an abusive owner.” The lady peered over her glasses with a warning look.
“We have that in common,” Stella said and met the lady’s eyes with her own challenging glare until the lady found something else to look at.
“She’s not eating much, so you’ll want to start slow. Might want to ease her into dry food. Try cooked sweet potatoes, some poultry. Don’t be disappointed if she isn’t affectionate.”
Even with all the warnings and urged caution, Stella was undeterred. This dog had chosen her. Stella left the shelter with a handful of pamphlets about care and feeding and training. But also with a feeling of shock. She’d gone in with the intention of taking home a tiny ball of kitten and walked out with an abused mutt on a short leash.
“What are we going to name you?” Stella asked. She reached over to stroke the dog’s back, but thought better of it. Maybe they weren’t ready for that. She had to give the dog the space to come to her even though every part of her wanted a snuggle.
The doggo turned her big brown eyes toward her and issued a thin whine.
“Boxer mix,” she whispered to herself as she pulled into the parking lot of the local grocery store. “Tyson. What do you think of Tyson?”
The dog hitched up one eyebrow as if to say, “You can’t be serious.”
“Not Tyson.” She put the car into park. “George Foreman?”
The dog issued a shrill bark. Stella reached over and scratched behind the dog’s soft ears. Names are important. This might take some time.
Stella found a parking spot at the back of the lot of McCue Market. The small grocery store was a Mineral Springs’ institution. It started as a simple, roadside farmer’s stand in the late 1950s where the McCue family sold fresh, local produce, canned goods in Ball jars, and bakery treats. Soon, the McCue family started working with other farmers and suppliers to meet demand. In the early 1960s they bought an abandoned warehouse next to the train tracks and expanded the business. They won Stella’s loyalty by offering home delivery and honoring her special orders.
Stella rolled up with windows until they were each cracked about an inch and turned to the dog. “I’ll be right back.”
The dog whined in response but went back to looking out the front window.
Unlike many other Iowa towns that relied upon Walmart or other big box stores, Mineral Springs had a thriving downtown thanks to a massive revitalization push by the city council starting in the early 1990s. Numerous grants and publicity campaigns and even the Coronavirus Pandemic helped keep the doors open. It also helped that the city council was a powerful force against corporate concerns and rejected any bids from big box stores or chain restaurants.
Stella grabbed a small cart at the front of the store to begin her supermarket sweep. She wanted to get back to the dog before he suffered from separation anxiety or started tearing apart the inside of her beloved Subaru.
The produce department shone with all the colors of the rainbow: yellow bell peppers, red radishes, blueberries, eggplant. All the beauty of a tropical postcard in her grocery store. It was that kind of day where everything inspired her: the produce, the dog, the sunshine. She wanted to make radish soup and landscape the yard and spend every moment with the dog all the same time. The anxiety and inspiration was marked by a deep calm within her: an acceptance of this is how things will be from now on, an acknowledgement that adopting this mutt had opened a doorway.
She loaded sweet potatoes, carrots, natural peanut butter, canned green beans, and green peas into the cart. Stella rounded the aisle out of produce and up to the meat counter. A young girl, probably ten years old, chased her mother down an aisle while dribbling a bouncy ball. She squealed with glee as the blue ball rocketed from her hands and hit a shelf of ramen noodle packages and knocked a few of the packets to the concrete floor. The mother abandoned her cart piled high with sodas and snack foods. She snatched a handful of the girl’s hair and yanked her head back. The little girl was silent, her lips drawn in a tight line. Any other child would holler or yelp the first time they had their head ripped back like that. This wasn’t the first time mama had laid hands on her.
Stella recognized the slow burn of defiance in the girl’s eyes as she looked up at her mother. “Goddamn it, Betsy. I told you to knock it off.”
Her heart lived for that little girl.
Despite her cruelty, the woman was stunning. Her stick-straight dark brunette hair cut in a Betty Page bob that suited her angular face. Her Nike tracksuit was in perfect condition with matching acrylic nails while the girl’s hair hadn’t been brushed and her too small tee shirt was stained with a purple bib of Kool-aid. The woman was short, less than five foot and petite, but muscular. Maybe she’d aspired to be a gymnast but had it ruined by a scandalous high school pregnancy.
Stella’s head swiveled in a panic looking for another witness to the abuse when she also realized where she was for the first time. She knew she was in a grocery store, but it was more the realization she wasn’t at home cowering from the world. Two years ago this errand would have been a run of the mill, mindless existence, but she hadn’t ventured past the property boundaries of her new home in six months. Although her online therapist diagnosed it as agoraphobia, Stella knew it wasn’t that pathological. She preferred to be at home where she could control her exposure to the ugly world. Stella knew she could and would go back out into the world, but she’d wanted to plan her re-entry and go slow like maybe a park or a coffee shop with her sister. But here she was in the middle of a grocery store on a Friday morning.
Stella had her own battles. Some day she’d have the strength to be a crusader, but right now she had a dog that needed her.
At the meat counter, she tried to wait for the clerk but they didn’t keep the a-team behind the cold case this time of day. From the wall of pre-packed meat, she loaded the cart with chicken breast, ground turkey, and some pork chops.
McCue Market didn’t offer a self-check option. Stella found small talk exhausting and she was too distracted by the dog waiting for her in the car not to be considered rude. She placed her purchases on the conveyor belt and hoped for the best. The belt advanced and the middle-aged woman began weighing and measuring her vegetables.
“Hope you wasn’t looking for Lucky Charms,” the clerk said. Her words all slurred together, almost unintelligible.
“I’m sorry,” Stella said with a shake of her head.
“We got no Lucky Charms,” the clerk said and enunciated each word like Stella was hard of hearing. “Bunch of men came in here this mornin’ and bought ’em all.”
“Oh I could tell stories,” the clerk said with a conspiratorial wink. “These guys bought every box.”
“Yuck.” Stella couldn’t imagine a worse meal than the chalky Lucky Charms.
“Looked like they’s up to no good, but what kinda trouble you gonna cause with cereal?”
“We’ll never know,” Stella said, snatched the receipt as it printed, and jogged for the door with her bags swinging every which way.
She opened the tailgate to toss in the bags and the dog bounded over the seat and launched herself at Stella. She dropped the bags and covered her face. The dog pinned her to the asphalt and licked her forearms. The dog ducked under Stella’s defensive posture, licked her face and neck until she squealed with laughter and hugged him. He settled down and lay on her chest. Stella thought of the spectacle they were creating, but didn’t care. She was in love.