Little Dog states that Rose once said "memory is a choice" and that she'll never see him underneath a tree with another boy. At night, Little Dog sometimes feels as though a bullet is lodged inside his body. As Rose’s son, Little Dog knows about both work and loss. Little Dog says that Rose’s hands are hideous, dry, and wrecked after years of working as a manicurist. The nail salon is more than just a place of beauty; it is a place where children are raised. The nail salon is also a kitchen, where the smell of cooking noodles lingers with bleach and industrial cleaner. Manicurists spend hours at their desks, and when they don’t have clients, they pour over English workbooks from ESL classes that take a quarter from their wages. Little Dog both hates and loves Rose’s mangled hands for what they can never be.
Little Dog recalls a specific episode. It is a Sunday, and Little Dog is ten years old. One of Rose’s jobs is to open the nail salon on the weekends, and, as usual, Little Dog goes with her. He flips the sign to “Open,” and a client, an older woman about 70 years old, limps into the salon. She asks for a pedicure, and Rose motions her to the pedicure chair and begins to fill the tub with warm water and different solutions. When the tub is filled, Rose motions for the woman to put her feet in, but the woman hesitates. Then, the woman reaches down and, rolling up her pant leg, removes her leg from below the knee. It is a prosthesis, Little Dog realizes, as she places her other leg and foot into the water.
Just as Rose finishes massaging the client’s calf, the woman motions to the other side, to her missing leg. Rose says nothing and begins massaging the woman’s missing leg. Little Dog watches as the “muscle memory” of Rose’s arms work the woman’s imaginary leg, her movements outlining what isn’t there. Rose dries the woman’s foot, and when she goes to leave, she hands Rose a $100 bill. “The lord keep you,” the woman says. Rose takes the money and puts it in her bra. Later that night, Rose lays on the living room floor, and Little Dog massages her back. He takes a quarter, dips it in Vicks VapoRub, and pulls it firmly down Rose’s sore muscles. Little Dog thinks of Barthes again. “A writer is someone who plays with the body of his mother,” Barthes says, “in order to glorify it, to embellish it.” Little Dog looks to Rose’s spine and thinks it resembles a row of ellipses no silence can translate. He wishes Barthes was right, but to Little Dog, writing about Rose is to change, embellish, and preserve her all at once.
In 2003, when Little Dog is fourteen years old, he gets a job at a tobacco farm. He lies to his mother and tells her that he is working elsewhere because he is aware that she won't let him work at the tobacco farm. Little Dog is paid less than minimum wage since he is not legally allowed to work. We also learn that Rose’s nightmares have worsened, and Little Dog often finds her sitting naked at the kitchen table in the middle of the night talking about a secret bunker. At his new job, Little Dog observes that he works mainly with illegal immigrants and that almost everyone speaks Spanish. The men sleep in camping trailers hidden from the road, just beyond the tree line, and when the work is over, they move to the next farm. During Little Dog's first day, he is unaccustomed to the rules and rituals of the space and turns down a pair of gloves when they are offered to him. His hands turn brown and sticky with sap and become full of splinters and cuts. The work is hard and tedious, but Little Dog enjoys it and the men are formidable. Because Little Dog doesn’t speak Spanish, he learns other ways to communicate with them through gestures and the word "sorry." When Little Dog first meets Trevor, he also says "sorry" to him and encounters him again in the barn.
After several meetings, Trevor and Little Dog begin a sexual relationship. Little Dog and Trevor spend hours talking in the barn until the late summer sun begins to set. Trevor tells Little Dog that the tobacco they are harvesting is headed to Africa and East Asia, where people still smoke. Trevor claims the crops are poor and have few seasons left before they stop growing. Trevor is silent, and after a moment, he tells Little Dog that he hates his father. Little Dog is quiet and then says he hates his father too. Sitting on top of a tool shed with Trevor, Little Dog feels the cool breeze and watches the late summer sun go down. They are done working for the day, but Little Dog is too tired to start the bike ride home. They sit talking, and Trevor talks about guns and dropping out of school. He thinks the Colt factory might be hiring again because it has been months since the last mass shooting. Trevor talks about his father and his drinking, about video games and cartoons, and Little Dog talks about Rose and her nightmares.
After the day on the roof of the shed, Little Dog and Trevor drive around in Trevor’s truck. As he drives, Trevor cuts a cigarillo lengthwise with a box cutter and empties out the tobacco and tells Little Dog to hand him two plastic bags from the glovebox. Little Dog reaches in and grabs the bags filled with marijuana and cocaine and hands them to Trevor, who fills the cigarillo with marijuana and sprinkles it with cocaine. He licks the cigarillo to seal it and lights it. They pass the cigarillo back and forth until Little Dog feels his head disconnect and float away. They talk for hours in the truck but somehow end up in the barn again. Little Dog is employed at the tobacco farm for two more years but continues to meet with Trevor. One day in October, Little Dog discovers for the first time that he is beautiful; he stands naked in front of a full-length mirror and, staring at his body, Little Dog is struck with the beauty of his body.
After Little Dog and Trevor's first sexual encounter, they have another one during which Trevor grabs Little Dog's hair and yanks his head back, which excites Little Dog. This becomes a moment in which Little Dog discovers too that violence and pain can be linked with love and pleasure. Little Dog and Trevor continue their sexual trysts, but one time, Little Dog is disappointed when Trevor's internalized homophobia prevents them from engaging in new forms of intimacy.
Trevor lives with his father in a trailer behind the interstate. In his room, Trevor turns up the stereo. A song by 50 Cent blares from the speakers, and Trevor asks Little Dog if he has heard the new song before. Little Dog has, but he lies and says he hasn’t, giving Trevor a little power and knowledge over him. Trevor walks back and forth, singing along with the lyrics, and Little Dog looks around the room. Movie posters hang from the walls, and the desk is littered with receipts and various garbage, as well as scattered marijuana and fentanyl patches. In Trevor’s bed together, Little Dog can again taste the salt and sweat of Trevor’s body. Trevor, shaking, tells Little Dog to close his eyes. Little Dog closes his eyes, but he remembers that Trevor is white and he is not.
Trevor and Little Dog begin to refer to their modified sex as “fake fucking,” and one day, Trevor asks Little Dog to be on top, like Trevor always is. They snuggle into the bed, and just as Little Dog slips his penis between Trevor’s legs, Trevor stops him and says that he can't do it because he doesn't want to feel like a girl—like a bitch. Little Dog pulls the covers up, and Trevor goes back to playing his video game. Little Dog watches the television screen as a little red Mario falls from a platform. Her later asks Rose if she thinks happiness and sadness can combine to create one feeling. Time passes, and it is 7:00 in the evening on Thanksgiving Day, and Little Dog and Trevor are riding their bikes down Main Street. Trevor’s father is back at their trailer eating TV dinners and drinking whiskey. The boys decide they are hungry, so they go to a gas station, where they buy two frozen egg-and-cheese sandwiches. They sit across the street, eating their sandwiches, and listen as a man calls some neighborhood kids in for the night. The day is “a purple day,” Little Dog says. It isn’t good, and it isn’t bad, just something in between.
Later, Little Dog tells Rose that he is gay in a Dunkin Donuts. Rose's reaction is one of fear and near denial. It is here that Rose tells Little Dog a "secret": that she had an abortion, that he could have had an older brother. We learn that Rose was a teenager when this happened and that it was dangerous because she was far along in her pregnancy. After divulging this news, Rose says she feels sick and Little Dog tends to her needs.
The second part of the novel begins with a meditation on memory. Though not explicitly stated, this is a moment in which Little Dog names his sexuality and attraction to men. The moment is brief, but it is a moment in which queer desire is coded in the text but still somewhat legible.
Later, the interaction between Rose and the client reveals Rose as a gentle and caring woman, but it also serves as a metaphor for the power of memory. Rose’s muscle memory after years of pedicures goes through the motions even in the absence of the woman’s leg. The woman’s phantom leg sensation implies that memories, especially important ones, are never really forgotten.
Rose's reaction to Little Dog's "coming out" is one of fear and near denial, which amplifies themes of dislocation, queerness, and masculinity. Rose’s comment that she “gave birth to a healthy, normal boy” implies that being queer is neither “healthy” nor “normal,” and that to be a queer man is to be the opposite of masculine and to wear a dress. These assumptions reflect the discrimination faced by the queer community in American society, as does the language used to describe queer men. The Vietnamese word for gay, pê-đê, relies on the French word pédéraste, pederast in English, which makes Little Dog’s sexuality appear criminal and sick by extension. Little Dog weaves this memory into his story of coming out to his mother because it lends insight into the way Rose’s comments make Little Dog feel other. Rose implies that to be queer is to be, in a way, a “freak,” and Little Dog’s mind automatically goes back to a time when he was made to feel the exact same way.
Rose later has to vomit, and Little Dog is unsure if it is because she is upset that Little Dog has just told her that he is queer. Regardless, Little Dog likely thinks his sexuality makes his mother physically ill, which again reflects the discrimination and hate faced by the queer community.
In another moment of meta-textual commentary, Little Dog states that a comma is like a fetus, which attempts to name a kind of futurity and possibility at the same time that it is a brief pause. Little Dog’s comparison of a fetus to a comma implies that they both connote a continuation or future, and therefore possibility.