Salvador Jimenez is a bright but slightly volatile 18-year-old living with his debilitated mother in Los Angeles. His father (“Pa”), brother (“Rafa”), and sister (“Isabella”) have long since moved out, leaving him predominantly responsible for the onerous task of caring for “Ma”. Salva feels the situation is acutely unfair, and is frustrated that he can’t force them to take care of her and to not take of her himself is essentially to kill her.
The story opens with Salva complaining to his shady next door neighbor Victor, whose new dog kept him up all night with its barking. Victor explains that he is training the dog to be a watchdog, and that if you take a “good, sweet dog” and starve it, it becomes an effective watchdog. Salva expresses skepticism, reasoning that a thin, weak animal wouldn’t be any help against a robber, but Victor says that a hungry dog will treat a burglar like a piece of meat.
Salva is irritated, but pushes the matter aside as he is focused on getting a job at Osuna’s Grocery Store, the local, slightly upscale supermarket. He first goes shopping there, so as to “seem like the kind of guy who would be at home in the surroundings”. On his shopping trip, he meets Samantha, a pretty cashier, and buys a choice cut of seasoned veal.
Salva then applies for a job there, and is given an interview. The night before his interview, the dog next door is particularly frantic, keeping him awake all night with its barking and howling and leaving him a tired, hollow mess the morning of his interview. Despite this, the meeting goes relatively well, and he leaves Osuna’s feeling very optimistic.
He meanders around a bit before heading home, and gets back to find that his father a. visited without staying around long enough to say hello, and b. left less money than usual on the counter. Irritated, Salva nevertheless brushes it aside because he feels hopeful about his new job.
Osuna’s doesn’t call for eight days. Salva is frustrated to the point of mania, as Osuna had made it sound like the final job offer was a mere formality. He is relying on this job as a way to finally escape from the apartment, as he will be able to hire someone to take care of Ma part-time. At last, feeling shaky and desperate, he calls Osuna’s to find that they had, in fact, called to offer him the job the very day of the interview, but had reached his father who said that he would have to decline the job because of family duties.
In a case of extremely poor timing, Salva’s brother Rafa calls a few minutes later to say that he won’t be able to come and take care of Ma that weekend like he said he would, and hangs up over Salva’s furious protests. Salva becomes apoplectic and calls him back twenty times, each time receiving no answer. Finally, he decides to leave Rafa a voicemail of him telling his mother that her eldest son doesn’t care for her and doesn’t want to come see her, followed by the sound of her heavy, ragged breathing.
He then calls his sister twenty times, and she also doesn’t pick up. Feeling utterly beaten and defeated in the face of his family’s attempts to undermine him, he hears the dog next door barking and feels a sudden kinship with it, as they are both trapped in the apartment complex, both facing neglect from the people who are supposed to care for them.
Salva recalls Victor’s words about how a hungry dog will treat a burglar like a piece of meat. As if in a trance, he takes the uneaten veal from Osuna’s and rubs it all over his body. He then heads next door, with the vague intent of showing his family that “they could only push someone so far before that person had nowhere to go except right over the edge”.
Victor is not there, and Salva breaks in and approaches the growling dog’s room with feelings of apprehension, convinced that these may be his final living moments. He opens the door expecting teeth, and to his surprise sees the emaciated dog cowering in the corner fearfully, looking like anything but the ferocious guard dog it is supposed to be (“All in all, I didn’t think I had ever seen a more pathetic, pitiable sight in my entire life, and I lived in an apartment with a woman who provided me with more than her fair share”.).
Thoughts of martyrdom forgotten, his heart goes out to the dog and he scoops it up and brings it back to his apartment to care for it and give it some veal. As the dog wolfs down the meat, Salva notices that Isabella, the “least bad” of all his family members, has left him a message, wondering what on earth the matter was and saying that she would be right over.
© Bill Driscoll, 2019. All rights reserved.