Side Hustling, Chapter 1: The Dogs and the Disaster

In the first installment of this month’s serial, college student Valerie goes up against a pack of unruly lap dogs.

Illustrated by Rachel Lee.

After accidentally destroying her roommate’s computer, Valerie must pick up a series of odd jobs in order to rectify the situation.

Dogs are basically computers. Their operating system can be a little wonky and there’s more hair than I’d like on the hardware. Water damage isn’t much of a concern. In general, the same. Input, processing, response. Dogs and computers obey rules. They require upkeep. They’re ideal for a lazy afternoon and expensive to debug. They have an internal logic that builds trust, makes them neat and consistent. 

And both of them are ruining my life.

It’s dizzying to remember how I met Emily. I had finished lugging my last box across the doormat. I threw myself onto the nearest bed and tried to catch my breath. The same three flights of stairs, over and over, but the job was done. I surveyed the mess strewn across the linoleum floor. Was that everything I had? Back home it seemed like … more. My breath returned and for a moment there was calm. Then Emily crashed through the door. A man and a woman — both exhausted —  followed her with suitcases in tow. Two guys with heavy black belts around their bellies wheeled in an army of boxes.  

“That’s my bed,” Emily said. I jumped up, struck by lightning and rushed to the other twin. I watched her lob commands for an hour. She was Napoleon on horseback. Her team swept my meager pile to the side and carefully arranged her shirts, her leggings, her dresses, her jackets, her pants, her hoodies, her—

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Back to reality, though. I’m being pulled one way by Bogo, a German Shepard, and five other directions by a gang of surly chihuahuas. Princess, Queen, Duchess, Darling — no, wait. Princess, Queen, Darling, Sweetie and … ugh. Their names are 10 dollars a pop for every half-hour. The yappy cretins keep running in this weave that sends me spinning to untangle the leashes, which puts them next to Bogo, who doesn’t like Princess but seems to have an unhealthy interest in Sweetie. We take a left at the corner to make one more pick-up: a last-minute request for a dachshund named Frank that is, “an unmitigated sweetheart.” I can already hear him barking from three houses down. So does Bogo. He joins in.

So, at first Emily didn’t talk to me. She wasn’t mute. She talked plenty. She talked to the friends she managed to make on her very first day while I was reading through syllabi. She talked to that tall boy she brought back to the dorm for a “tour.” She talked on the phone every day in this lush voice, like she had just finished marathoning “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Just not to me. Then, during our second week I was hunched over in bed, reinstalling Parallels on my laptop after yet another crash, when I heard her.

“Uh, I’m talking to you!” she said. She was holding up one of my books: Finite State Machines in Hardware, vol. 9. “Is this real?”

“It’s my— yeah. It’s real.”

“You’re like a nerd!” she squealed. That was enough for her. She started talking to me. Well, she started asking me questions about her Introduction to Calculus problem sets and sometimes, gushing about her day after I gave up and scribbled down the answers. I wanted to hate her for it, but … she was Emily. She filled the room. She never stuttered, never hesitated, never stopped to question herself. Every set of eyes entered her gravity. Heads turned like animatronics to bask in her presence—

Let me take this moment to say I would absolutely never ever wish harm on a dog. Except for Frank. He can die. He bites me, twice, as I lean down to pet him. I finally manage to pull him into the sprawling web of leashes and begin waddling down the sidewalk. With every tug, I lurch forward, backward, left and right. It becomes a game. A balancing act that happens to be slowly fracturing my wrists. It’s fine. I’m fine. There’s no other choice. 

One day, Emily just stared out of the window like some perfect Victorian debutante. I pretended like I wasn’t watching her. She pulled out her phone. Did the sun move to give her better lighting for the selfie?

“Roomie!”

I was pretty sure that she knew my name, but I didn’t have any evidence.

“I’m going out of town to visit my boyfriend this weekend, okay?” she said. She motioned to her computer. “This stupid thing isn’t working. Can I look at the train schedule on yours?”

“Yeah, uh, of course.”

I watched her scroll through the MTA’s website at a snail’s pace. She caught me spying over her shoulder.

“He has a place in Westchester,” she blushed. “It’s not a big deal. He’s a lawyer.”

“Wow. That’s incredi—”

“Isn’t it?” she said. She had found the map and snapped a picture with her phone. She’d bounced off my bed and her suitcase was rolling out the door before I closed my mouth, her goodbye echoing down the hallway.

I slumped back against the wall, shut my laptop. Not even Friday afternoon and I had the place to myself. I flicked my cheek. There had to be parties tonight, but no one had mentioned anything to me. I tried humming. It sounded weird. Then, I saw it. Emily’s “thing.” A recently purchased, hardly used Dell XPS 13.

I approached it cautiously. I reached out, nearly touching the shell. Wait. I spun around, checked the door: locked. Safe. I picked up the laptop and tried the power button. No dice. I held it down for five seconds. Power button, shift, control. Nothing. I turned it over. The base was protected by four screws. Measly things. The same ones I’d dealt with a hundred times before.

I don’t even remember finding my screwdriver and popping the lower cover off. The laptop was in my hands, but I could hardly see it. I saw Emily coming home. I saw her opening the laptop and watching it whirl to life. “Incredible,” she’d say, before turning to face me. “Wait a second.” She’d wag her finger. “You didn’t!” and we’d hug. She’d come up with a cute nickname when she introduced me to her friends that night. “¿Quieres margs?” I’d ask and they would all laugh—

ZZZZZZZZTTTT.

Frank has gotten loose. He’s tearing down the street, hardly dodging each car that passes. I drag the entire gang with me, ignoring the incessant yelps, as I chase him. By the time I grab him I’m panting. Frank’s tongue hangs out the side of his mouth. He cocks his head. His eyes twinkle. I reach out to reattach his collar. He bites my hand.

I recognized the laptop sound immediately. I pretended not to, for a minute, but I’ve heard a motherboard short-circuit before. Hit a RAM slot and the CMOS at the same time with a conductive material and … it’s loud. It’s fast. It’s permanent. It’s game over.

Frank has now drawn blood. I suck on the wound as the dogs run circles around me. A few cars slow down to watch the poor girl getting beaten up by a pack of hounds. No one offers to help. Doesn’t matter. I don’t need help. I need three more jobs per hour, today and tomorrow, nine hours each. I need a couple generous tips and the eighty bucks that mom gave me. I need the electronics store to give me a discount for paying in cash. I need to get home before Emily does. 

My phone buzzes.

[EMILY 05:31] ugh richard is being weird

[EMILY 05:31] this sucks.

I need…

[EMILY 05:32] i’m just gonna come back tmrw c u soon

I need a miracle.

Email Alec Winshel at [email protected]

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