The Yearbook Office
Writings on staying alive

At Lakewood, bet on Woodlake
At Mercy West, Dr. Meredith Grey
Your best bet this week: Landbiscuit at Sputem Downs

We have shit-bagging contests at work and I almost always win, having been blessed with my mother's surgical dexterity and my father's large Midwestern hands. I can fit up to four average piles in one fold-over sandwich bag. You learn to match poop to dog without witnessing the event: Malo eats raw so his is tiny and hard. Riley B. is overfed so his is scattered and loose. Riley F. likes to poop against the wall.

We can all eat while bagging (snack in one hand, poop in the other), and we live off the free food. Every Thursday Ra-Ra goes to Costco with the boss lady's credit card and comes back with bleach, paper towels, latex gloves, granola bars, three kinds of soda, and variety packs of chips. There's a two-month period when the boss is losing her mind and we get away with adding instant oatmeal and Hot Pockets to the list. I ask for artificial sweetener and get a lifetime supply; after years of wishing for a nickname, something unique and unspeakably cool, I become "Splenda."

In summer we stay outside with the radio on and dance with the dogs and each other in the gravel lot. We go home after dark, dusty and rank, and get up pre-dawn to do it again.

The early morning shift is especially unfiltered; I know Rick's binge drinking habits by heart, the size and prowess of Ra's boyfriend's dick, and I know what song to play to wake everybody up, to make the boss lady mad, to calm down the dogs, or to start an argument because sometimes the job is so boring, conflicts must occur.

Nate takes extra-long smoke breaks to call his girlfriend the dancer and cry.

La's new boyfriend won't let her have male friends, but he's so amazing, look at this picture, my baaaaaaaaby, he's so fine!

Anna goes missing for three days and comes back with tales of marathon sex with a guy she met at a sorority party. The boss lady called her parents and her parents called the cops but she's back before the missing persons deadline has passed. She had, like, twelve orgasms in one night, god you guys I'm so seriously right now.

Rick comes to work with a bad black eye and says he broke up with his girlfriend, went to a hardcore show, picked a fight with a bouncer, and got punched in the face. He hasn't slept so he goes to the bathroom for an hour. I'm his Secret Santa this year; I'll give him a gift certificate to the comic book store I pass every day on the long walk to work. He's my Secret Santa, too; he'll give me a book of 1,001 Jokes. I will lose it in my move from Wrigleyville to Albany Park, which is for the best (the move, not losing the book, which is kind of a cute gift because Rick knows I do comedy but has no sense of humor, himself). We argue over mopping methods and sometimes I worry he's going to kick a dog. Or me.

One morning the office phone is for me, which feels forbidden and strange. It's my father, panicked because he tried to call me two days ago and I didn't call him back, and hasn't checked with my mother, who talked to me that morning and knows everything is fine. Weeks can pass without us speaking and it's no big deal, and then one day, ignoring one call is the worst possible thing. At least my parents worry sporadically, from separate corners of their house; Robert's girlfriend doesn't speak to her parents at all because they don't approve of her living with a man before marriage, though it's the same man she's been dating since they were both sixteen. When they get a memory foam mattress, Robert tells us about the inaugural sex, and how his fist left an imprint next to her head.

Always, always, there are dogs. Nero, Finn, Howard, Truman, Stella Love, Stella M., Maggie I., Maggie H., Annie F., Annie P., Maisey, Ace and Stitch. Molly and Riley P., whose dads are a judge and an I-don't-know-what but did you see how short his running shorts were today, and his face! Plastic surgery, you can tell. Nicky the Italian greyhound needs his sweater, because it's vewwy vewwy cold out says his Catholic dad, whose Catholic wife is pregnant, can you believe, you know Jon-no-h who you replaced, he stayed at their house once and said they keep a picture of the pope over the bed. Every spring a new crop of baby yellow labs, the most popular breed in America; Moose (anorexic mom), Buddha (dad sells pot), Lily-one-l (hot attorneys), Lilly two-l's (Germans, own a boat), and Wrigley after Wrigley after Wrigley, because of the field, because of the northside clientele and their condos and not-quite-luxury cars. Clarks and Addisons, too, and a Belmont for good measure. Aren't they cute, little precious, we coo and coo and coo.

There's a doorbell and a camera and mostly we take turns, but when someone special arrives, everyone knows who gets who.

Robert likes Riley B.'s mom, an elementary school art teacher in printed skirts. But she's so stupid, I say. That's the point.

La loves Riley F.'s dad, another lawyer, and she puts away her accent when she goes to meet him at the gate. Behind the door she's speaking half-Spanish all the time, yelling and laughing and teaching me how to swear. Out front she smiles big and says everything just so.

I'm nuts for Maggie Harvey's dad, a true crime author who owns an Irish pub and he has a gruff Boston accent and a handsome gangster's face. I try to talk to him about Boston once or twice, but he's the client, and I'm just the slob who picks up his dog's shit for minimum wage.

Few of the human clients bother to learn our names, but some of the the dogs do. We can tell Dasha, "go see La," and she goes. We can tell Dante, "take the ball to Robert," and he does. In back, on a whiteboard behind the door, Robert draws up plans for Labschwitz, where surplus labradors go to die. Outside, this is abhorrent, but in here it's our favorite running joke. After labs, the most popular breeds in an upscale doggy daycare on the northside of Chicago are the French Bulldog, the Hungarian Viszla, and the Bernese Mountain Dog. Certain owners are wary of certain type of dogs, so when we see them coming on the video screen, I put away my Radar with his bullet head and scars, though he's least likely to get in a fight.

When Spenser the Corgi suddenly dies, when his legs stop working one day and he's put to sleep the next, we all sign a card to his parents. I always thought of Spenser as a British professor, I write. Robert reminds them of the Spenser-mummy we made with toilet paper on Halloween. I include a picture I took of him during my first week on the job, as if to say, see, I knew he was special from the start. We all loved him. Every client thinks their dog is the best, and once in a while, it's true.

Books and movies about dogs who change lives and die succeed for a reason. Dogs change lives, and then they die, maybe not right way but soon enough. Sooner than we want every time. Mine are still alive, but I think about them dying all the time, and how I don't know how to love a human the way I love them: with such constant ferocity, such heart-swelling truth.

When the boss-lady loses her Brick, sixteen years old and the first dog she ever trained, we can barely look her in the eye. He saved her life, and in a way she's saving ours, whether we realize it now or not. We say: some day we'll get out of this place and make it and tell our new, famous friends, I knew that guy when he was picking up dog shit for eight bucks an hour and free Diet Coke. We mean: we're gonna stick around here way too long, because we're still figuring it out, and the human world is hard. We know: these half-days together, misfits and dogs, will be the best job we ever had.