There are two dogs which fight inside every man...
The day I turned in my number and walked out from behind the concertina-covered walls of the Huntsville prison unit, no one waited to greet me. No friends, no family. I lost them all, one by one, so that my only well-wishers were the hot, southern sun and the ancient pine trees of central Texas. I was wearing state-issued street clothes, alien against my skin after three years in an orange jumpsuit, and made my way to a small diner, one of only two businesses within walking distance—the other was a Greyhound bus station. I ate quickly and tried to ignore the stares of the few other patrons. They knew where I had come from. So I paid and left quickly, walked the short distance to the station and bought a one way ticket on the first bus out of town. I looked at the ticket. Louisiana, here I come, I thought and smiled stiffly, as if for the first time.
I have scars on my face and they glow angry and red at the least provocation. A friend of mine stuck an old screwdriver between the ribs of the man who cut my face, and I didn’t feel the least bit bad about it. Truth is I wished he had cut off the guy’s ears and nose before he killed him, like I’d asked. That I am capable of these thoughts sickens me. I was not this person, until I came to that place. Feeling the vibration of another man’s bone breaking between your hands, touching the inside of an eye socket, Those sensations will never leave me, changed me for the worse, and I think about them every single day. I have regressed. The Darwinian mentality of forced confinement will not un-condition itself, and I find myself locked in useless struggle against an imaginary opponent.
Bartending in a deep southern city was not the job I had in mind as a kid. “Quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys” had several backup plans, including astronaut, firefighter, spy, and bull rider, but underpaid bartender was not one of them. I’d taken the job because I knew that a family-owned restaurant was unlikely to double check when I smiled and assured the owner I was not a convicted felon. It was a job. It paid the rent on the small trailer I leased just outside of the city and kept me sinking in rotgut whiskey and microwave dinners. I hoped that within a few years I could save enough money to set up on a small island in the Gulf, maybe even Cuba, where I’d be happy to sit and drink myself to death, slowly enough to appreciate it.
Dartrell washed dishes at the restaurant. He was 18, skinny, and his gold-plated teeth gleamed whenever he laughed. He cracked jokes as much as he worked and had been fired at least three times, but the Italian owner kept hiring him back. I didn’t know him well, but he asked for a ride that night. I mixed two stiff drinks, poured them in tall Styrofoam glasses, and we left.
Dartrell lived in the worst part of town, a neighborhood built on the banks of a massive, mile-wide depression in the earth, excavated to serve as the city’s landfill. The blocks of the neighborhood surrounded the stinking pit in concentric circles, five progressively wider bands, the oldest houses farthest from the edge. The steep embankment leading 200 feet down to the garbage dump had given the neighborhood its nickname: “The Cliff.” Dartrell explained all of this to me as we drove. Dealers, grifters, whores and flimflam men littered the narrow, broken streets, and the only white face stared back at me in the rearview mirror. Kind of like prison, I thought.
Among the rows of small houses, some neat and trimmed, others falling down around foundations, was a single-room shanty. The windows were small and circular, like portholes, and plywood sheets covered three of the five. That and the plain wood exterior reminded me of Noah’s Ark, only God had changed his mind and Noah had become a down on his luck longshoreman. Two decrepit, mangy dogs perched on the sidewalk, still waiting for the deluge. An enormous black man stood silhouetted beneath a naked bulb on the crumbling front porch, muscular arms crossed in judgment, watching as we slowly drove past.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“That’s ol’ Marcus. That nigga be Crazy! Say, you know Marcus is Latin, right? That shit’s old, man. God of war an’ shit. Betchoo didn’t know THAT, now did ya?”
“Been reading up on your Shakespeare?” I asked.
“Shit no, man. Marcus told me that one time. Man got all kind of stories, but nobody believe any of ‘em. If he such a HIGH CLASS nigga, why the fuck he livin’ down here?”
I said I didn’t know and we drove on in silence for a few blocks until I saw a large number of cars parked up ahead. Dartrell noticed it, too, and said, “Say man, I need to make a quick stop. Stay in the car.”
I watched Dartrell approach the house, settled back in my seat and popped in The Mamas and the Papas. My mother used to make my sister and me listen to “Monday, Monday” on the way to school the first day of every week. I hated it at the time. Singing softly along with Mama Cass and the gang, I heard the faint but unmistakable sound of a large crowd. It came from the direction of the house, but there were no lights and no silhouetted movement behind the drawn curtains. Curiosity won out over caution, and so I left the car and made my over the cracked and tilted sidewalk, around a discarded hubcap and ahead to the front door.
Two black men stood on either side of the entrance to the large, dilapidated house. They looked like NFL linebackers, but dirty, scarred, and meaner. “Tha fuck you want, cracka?”
“I’m with Dartrell.”
“You a cop?”
“Cuz if you is, you gots to say so. That’s the law. If you ain’t a stinkin’ pig, you best make yo’ way. Or even if you is.”
“That’s not true, you know. Undercover cops lie all the time about who they really are. Right up until the time when they arrest you for child pornography, or whatever it is you’re in to.” I smiled when I said it, like we were already fast friends.
“You hear this mothafucka?” he said, turning to his friend. He turned back to me and said, “This ain’t no place to be clownin,’ punk. Best be on yo way with them stupid ass jokes an’ shit.”
One thing I learned during my incarceration was to differentiate between posturing and real aggression. These guys looked tough and talked tough, but they didn’t worry me--violent men are not inclined to preface their attacks. I don’t like to fight and won’t, unless I’m really backed up, so I said, “Listen, fellas, I just need to grab Dartrell and I’ll be out of your hair.”
“Have it yo’ way, my man. Best watch yo’ self. Know what I mean?”
I said thanks and headed inside.
Just before I walked through the door, one of them put his hand out and said, “So you must know Dartrell’s daddy, huh Cracka?”
I thought about grabbing his finger, bending it back and breaking it. When he started screaming, I could hit him fast in the nose and then put him down with a sharp kick to the groin and a chop to the base of his skull--but I thought his buddy might have a gun and decided against it.
“Yeah, from way back.”
“Well, mothafucka! You HEAR that, man? Cracka sez ‘from WAY back. My apologies, massa. We’s po’ folk jus’ tryin’ earn a livin,’ ya see?” The two black pillars collapsed in laughter and allowed me into the house.
The yelling and screaming continued, and I followed the sound to a rickety staircase. Below, I could make out a dim light and dog barks broke through the frenzy. Still no sign of Dartrell.
At the end of the stairs was a basement. Easily 5,000 square feet, the perimeter extended much further than the property line indicated. The ceiling was low, about eight feet, and there was a makeshift ring immediately in the center. Surrounding the pit were sandbags piled about three feet high, spattered with blood, and surrounded by more than one hundred men. Inside the ring were two American Pit Bull Terriers.
As I maneuvered for a spot closer to the ring, scanning the crowd for Dartrell, I stopped hearing the crowd and started hearing individual voices. Loudest among them were the odds men screaming out their picks and offers in high-pitched squawks that rose above the din of the crowd.
“Fiiiiiiiiiivvvvvvvvveee to one on a runt!”
“Nigga, you mus’ be crazy,” called out a potential customer. “Tha kid ain’t nothin’ but trainin’ meat. “Ten to one”
”Six.” And so on, and so forth.
I kept moving, no sign of Dartrell, ignored the brief stares, and was almost pushed into the ring by a short, violent scuffle. Two men were carried out, and the crowd was briefly quiet. I turned back to the ring.
Prison was, above all else, intensely boring. Time to fill, a lot of it, and I filled mine mostly with books. Studious and introverted as a child, I whiled away the hours and days reading, playing sports, and then reading some more. My post-graduate work turned reading into a chore, and I didn’t regain my love of it until I was locked up. That actually made perfect sense, as prison is in many ways a reversion to childhood, clearly defined rules, playground ethics, and waking up and going to sleep at the same time every day. The bullies and the bullied, and that lonesome sense that usually goes away with adulthood, but I found it again and had to. The small, silver lining was my rediscovery of books. For a time, I read everything I could about dogs: books on puppy training, advanced training, breed traits and origins, behavioral studies, AKC and UKC registration and standards—even books on proper grooming. I learned that not all dogs were as naturally friendly as my parent’s golden retriever, and that some dogs were specifically bred to hunt and kill their prey—often, other dogs. Tosa Inu, Dogo Argentino, Fila Brasileiro, Presa Canario were their names, and they were born and bred to fight.
The Staffordshire Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, and the American Pit Bull Terrier were bred for the same predatory purpose, although their genes have focused the idea of “prey” until it has become almost synonymous with “dog.” Most people group the three breeds into one, the “Pit Bull,” and the breeds’ disparate markings make that moniker as useful as any. Certain lines within these breeds have been carefully selected for their ability to deal out—and absorb—significant damage to whatever they fight. Traditionally, all pit bulls were tested against other dogs, in order to determine which dogs were “game,” that is, which dog would fight to the death, no matter the dog’s pain or the pain of its opponent. If a dog lost in the pit or otherwise wasn’t game enough for the owner likes, the dog was shot in the head and dropped in the trash. Although the books led me to believe that legislation and the SPCA had wiped out American dog fighting years ago, its eradication was disproved as I watched the two dogs strain for release from their human handlers.
Each handler used the other’s bucket of water to wash his dog, in order to lessen the chance that an illegal substance had been rubbed on the coat. The middle aged black men expertly kept their charges from making eye contact. If the fight began prematurely, time and money would be wasted. The crowd inched forward and I was pressed up against the sandbags, unable to move more than a few inches. The sound was deafening, but even had the event been held outside, I knew that chances of a police presence were slim. Cops reached for another donut when a call came in from The Cliff, and I wouldn’t have come, either, if I’d known where I was headed.
The referee gave the signal, and the handlers turned the dogs loose. The smaller dog didn’t seem to stand a chance against his opponent, and I mentioned this to the elderly black man standing next to me.
“The little one has gumption, young fella. Reminds me a little of you, comin’ in here. Lots of folk lookin’ at you and not all of ‘em nice as me.”
“What are their names?” I asked.
“The big one is called “Cain” and the runt is “Nimrod.”
“That’s a strange name for a dog. Who is his owner?”
The old man paused briefly and looked at my face. His eyes were milky from cataracts and I wasn’t sure he could really see me—perhaps he could only tell light from dark. I stared back, and he answered, “That dog belongs to Anthony Williams, but he was stolen from another man. Anthony said he won the dog on a wager, fair and square, but I’ll never believe it. The man who named Nimrod just as soon cut off his hand as lose that dog to a man like Anthony. But around here, it’s best not to speculate about such things.”
“If that dog is so important, why would his owner let him fight that beast? He doesn’t stand a chance.”
“Nimrod is undefeated.” He turned and smiled in my general direction. “Now watch the fight.”
In the pit, neither dog had yet gained the advantage. Both were bleeding from the scruff, but the holds had been too tenuous to gain real purchase. Low to the ground, the little one lunged, barely missing the other’s exposed throat, and settled instead for a grip on the big dog’s hindquarter near the point where the hip meets the torso. Out of options, the big pit latched on to Nimrod’s knee, and a second later I heard the cracking of bone. The referee did not award a point to either dog, but he signaled a break as neither dog could win the fight in their current positions. The handlers used a long, wooden object, shaped almost like a shoehorn, called a ‘breaking stick,’ and pried the dogs’ jaws apart. Both retreated to their corners, the referee watching as the handlers sipped their dogs’ water before allowing the combatants to drink, ensuring the dogs’ water was not doctored.
The crowd roared as the dogs were released for their second engagement, and they seemed unaffected by their injuries. Nimrod struck first, ripping the left ear from his opponent. As the ear came off, however, the small dog was exposed, and Cain took advantage by burying his teeth in Nimrod’s neck. A point was awarded, and the dogs were disengaged once again. After a short break, Nimrod was tested to ensure he could continue, and the dogs came together for what would be the final round.
The dogs circled, lunging like lightweight boxers, each wary of the other. To the clear surprise of the crowd, Nimrod suddenly launched himself at the bigger dog, crushing his jaws around Cain’s throat. Aware that he was in serious, mortal trouble, Cain thrashed around the ring, trying everything to dislodge the smaller dog’s unbreakable hold. He leaped into the air and rolled his body, trying to land and crush the air from Nimrod’s newly exposed underbelly, but he could only manage to land on the smaller dog’s uninjured back leg. The leg twisted grotesquely around the joint, but Nimrod would not let go. By this point, Cain had lost a significant amount of blood, and Nimrod’s hind legs were completely useless. Cain dragged the unyielding Nimrod in circles and zigzags around and across the ring, and the smaller dog dragged in his wake like a sack of potatoes, useless paws building small dunes of sand in the ring. Finally, exhausted and shaking, Cain dropped to the ground, Nimrod’s teeth still wrapped around the base of his neck. The handlers ran quickly to their dogs, the hold was broken, and the dogs were carried to their corners. Neither dog was capable of continuing, and the match was therefore declared a draw. The crowd yelled and cursed while the odds men smiled and counted their juice.
I spotted Dartrell, talking loudly with several other teenagers. At the same time, I saw the handlers carrying the wounded dogs out of the ring and through a door I hadn’t noticed until then.
I fought through the crowd, now louder, drunker, and waiting for the next fight. I reached Dartrell and yelled in his ear, “I’m going to check on those dogs. Come if you want.” Without waiting for an answer, I made for the door, the shouts of ‘whitey’ and ‘cracka’ from Dartrell’s friends dissolving into the crowd noise.
Through the door was a long hallway; a light at the end indicating the outline of a room. I heard low voices, indistinct, and the whine of an injured dog. Closer now, I heard one of the handler’s say, “Can you fix him?”
“I’d say they’re both better off dead.”
“Mr. Williams won’t be happy to hear that.”
“It is what it is. These dogs is done. I don’t reckon Mr. Williams want you bringin’ back no messed up dog like this. Better just tell ‘em he died after the fight. What? You think he spendin’ all kind of money to fix this dog’s legs? Fuck no, he ain’t.”
I heard a dull thunk and as I stepped into the room I saw one of the handlers raise his arm, hand clutched around a large rock, ready to bring it down again on Cain’s bloody head.
“Don’t touch those dogs, please,” I said.
Maybe they thought I was a cop. I don’t know and they didn’t ask, instead coming towards me quickly and with purpose. I turned as if to run and then pivoted, striking the first handler in the sternum with the heel of my right foot. I ducked the second handler’s wild punch and jabbed my knuckles straight and hard into his exposed throat. While he struggled for air, I lowered my shoulder and drove him into the wall, snapping his head back against the stone and dropping him to the floor, unconscious. The first handler was trying to raise himself from the ground, so I kicked him in the ribs and face until he stopped moving.
As I turned to the dogs, Dartrell came running in. He stopped, surveyed the scene and said, “You just fucked yo’ self.”
“The dogs are coming with us,” I said.
“The fuck them dogs comin.’ Them dogs is dead and you about to be next.”
I walked over to the dying dogs and held the back of my hand next to each dog’s nose in turn. Both were alive, but Cain was losing fast and surely dead, unless a vet was close by—real close.
“There’s a hatch above you. You can use that, but you on yo’ own after that,” Dartrell said and pointed to a cleverly disguised trapdoor leading up, presumably to ground level.
“Dartrell, I can’t carry both dogs. I need your help, at least to my car. After that, you can go your own way.”
Dartrell looked at me hard and then glanced back down the corridor behind us. He shook his head slightly.
“I thought you was just a bartender.”
“That’s right. And right now I’m just a bartender who needs your help carrying these dogs to my car.”
He didn’t reply but moved quickly over to where Cain lay motionless on a purloined picnic table. Surprising me with his strength, Dartrell cradled the big dog in his arms and pulled a thin wire cord, allowing a folded staircase to descend from the ceiling. I lifted Nimrod and followed Dartrell’s disappearing legs up the sturdy steps and emerged outside into a dull mist, my car only yards away and unmolested.
We loaded the dogs side by side in the back seat. I turned to Dartrell, about to speak, but he had already jumped into the passenger seat. Loud voices emerged from the house, headed in our direction.
“Remember that man, Marcus, I told you about? Go there."
Marcus was still standing on the porch when we arrived. Dartrell and I opened the doors of the back seats and struggled to lift our charges.
“What?” I asked, although I had heard him the first time.
“Cain’s dead. He ain’t breathin.’”
I nodded and wrapped my arms around Nimrod’s torso, struggling for a minute until a pair of giant black arms relieved me. Marcus had taken the dog and walked swiftly through the entrance to his house. I glanced back at Dartrell, pausing momentarily. Is this a trap? Could I trust him? Looking at his blood covered hands, I decided I could. No choice, really.
Although the door was open, a part of me felt like knocking, and so I did and heard a deep, quiet voice reply, “Please come in.”
Marcus had Nimrod on a table, his head hanging off the edge. As I watched, Marcus stuck a needle deep in the dog’s neck. He waited two minutes (three, five—I couldn’t be sure), and then began to mend the dog’s ragged wounds. Like magic, the bleeding stopped, and Marcus turned his attention to the pitiful back legs of the once-fearsome animal. The left leg, Marcus told me, was irreparably damaged, the bone broken in jagged splinters and the muscles and tendons torn from the bone. The right, however, he thought he could repair. Marcus went to work on Nimrod. Although why and how Marcus had learned to perform canine surgery were interesting questions, the day and night had left me numb and exhausted, and I fell asleep on an old but clean recliner.
When I opened my eyes again, several hours had passed. The sun was just starting its slow creep over and through the horizon, the faint light falling through the drawn curtains onto sleeping Nimrod. He was curled around himself, tail almost touching his nose, ribs rising and falling rhythmically with his breathing. He looked like any other dog, tired and worn out from a long day of chasing squirrels and butterflies, counting the time until the next meal or scratch behind the ears. Exactly like any other dog, except that Nimrod was now missing his left leg, and a homemade cast had been placed on the right. I sat and stared at Nimrod for a long while and thought about the dog’s luck, or grace, in surviving this long, and I wondered if Marcus could stick a needle in my neck and magically fix me, too.
“….There is the good, loving dog, and there is the evil, violent dog….”
I slept for another hour. I opened my eyes to the sight of Nimrod dragging himself towards the back door, his back leg limp and drawing shallow furrows in the timeworn carpet. He was headed for the backdoor, to the grass outside, the communal restroom of all good dogs. Judging by the distance he had traveled and the rate at which he moved, it looked like he’d been crawling for about half an hour. I walked over to Nimrod and picked him up. He stiffened and his muscles rippled beneath his skin, but he did not otherwise protest. We walked out the back door and emerged into a garden.
The view from the stone stepped path was stunning, even to someone like me, who had never cared much for such things. Hedges trimmed in geometric shapes, flowers perfect in bloom, pristine grass seemingly cut and arranged blade by blade. All surrounded a tumbling waterfall and lily pad-dotted pond.
Another question added itself to the growing list I had for my host. I gently lowered Nimrod to the ground, holding his haunches up so that he wouldn’t be forced to lie in his own filth, and the dog gratefully relieved himself. Good dog, I said, lifting him from the grass.
I carried him to a small stone bench, and we sat there for awhile in the early sun, the leaves overhead casting spotted shadows on my bare feet and on the dog’s face that rested on top of them.
The back door opened and Dartrell stepped out, yawning and rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“Whatchall doin’? He asked.
“Not much. Have you seen Marcus?”
“No. He probly out round the neighborhood, fixin’ folks up.”
“What’s Marcus do, Dartrell?” I asked. “For work?”
“Oh, he a doctor,” Dartrell said and walked back into the house.
Back inside, Dartrell poured himself a cup of coffee and another one for me. Nimrod was stretched out on the couch, worn out from fighting, surgery, and the earlier struggle for the door.
“I want to say thanks again for helping me out last night. I didn’t mean to put you in a bad spot. I guess I was reacting more than thinking. I do that sometimes.”
I took a sip of coffee, careful not to drink from the chipped side of the ceramic rim.
“You know anything about that dog?” I asked. “I talked to some old man at the fight, and he said something about a man named Anthony being his owner and how he won him on a bet. Know anything about that?”
Dartrell was quiet for a minute, and he looked up at the ceiling as he thought about what, if anything, he wanted to tell me. What he said wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. He told me that Marcus was his uncle, that Marcus and his father, Anthony, had been close as children, but that they had grown apart when Anthony had dropped out of high school and Marcus had continued on to college and, eventually, medical school. Marcus had also been a highly-regarded amateur boxer, and the siblings had reconciled when Marcus had put his medical career on hold in order to pursue a professional boxing career. Dartrell didn’t know the details, but somehow Anthony convinced Marcus to hire him as Marcus’ manager. Marcus, fighting in the heavyweight division, rose quickly up the junior circuit ranks, first making a name for himself in the South and soon rising to national prominence.
Dartrell leaned back in his chair, sipped his coffee, and stopped talking. He fixed his eyes on my face, and leaned forward in his chair.
“So, you about to tell me ‘bout yo’ self, or you gonna keep bein’ all quiet and shit?”
“What do you want to know?”
“How you get them scars?” he asked, pointing at my face. “I ain’t said nothin’ befo,’ but people be talkin’ ‘bout you at the restaurant. Say you got cut up by some bitch. That shit true?”
The question hung and fluttered there in the cool morning breeze that drifted through the curtains of the open kitchen window. I finished my coffee and asked for another cup.
Scars are tricky marks. Some are quiet and faded, remnants of expertly closed wounds, acquired through the lumps and sums of everyday life. Others are thick and ugly, earned through great pain, but are proudly displayed and their stories are told with enthusiasm and elicit laughs at their ends. Some are even tied to happiness, to great days of life and birth, parenthood and youth. A cut profound enough to scar leaves its counterpart in memory, and the physical mark is often as easily hidden, but not always, and not in my case.
My scars are there for the looking, on display like a personal billboard, an advertisement of shame, for the world to see and comment on and whisper about behind my back. So I hide the story because I cannot hide the scars and because reliving it every morning, standing in front of the mirror, is remembrance enough. It haunts me and shakes me and I am tired of it. My parents, my sister—they don’t know the story. Not the entirety, not the half of it. I haven’t spoken to them in over four years, and I don’t know if I can, or should, or ever will.
I never drank much, after the Army, a few beers a week, maybe a scotch or two at weddings, or after funerals. My wife was an alcoholic, on the wagon since before we married, and I didn’t want to make her struggle any harder than it had to be. We didn’t keep liquor or beer around the house, not even for the occasional guest. I didn’t consider it a sacrifice, because I loved her. It was worth it. A small price to pay for helping her live the life she needed to. We settled into a newly built house. Big. Empty. She had a marvelous time filling it with things we would never need or use and furniture we never touched.
Her home shopping spree lasted for about a year. The next thing she wanted was a family, but I wasn’t ready for kids and diapers. Fruit punch Capri Suns. Sexless years of spills and messes. Whining, and crying. Of becoming the people I had always hated sitting next to on planes and in restaurants. So instead of the happy pitter-patter of bare little feet, the long halls of our house echoed only with the grown-up, clip-clop sounds of expensive leather soles and the tip tap of couture pumps. The fan blades silently sliced circles in the air, and the television was tuned to CNN, on mute.
I worked a lot. Too much, I know. I was an ‘asset security consultant’ for a firm that specialized in something called ‘global risk management’—corporate doublespeak for ‘bodyguard.’ Modern robber barons insisted on fancy titles such as mine and my company’s to disguise their thuggish intent from clueless boards of directors. I traveled to other countries with our clients, making sure they didn’t catch a black eye or a bullet, while they spread the gospel of capitalism to remote corners of the globe. I made money and bought things I thought would make her happy. Expensive jewelry and other, meaningless baubles became substitutes for my time, down payments on her affection.
She didn’t work. I wouldn’t let her. I told her it was my role to provide for our family, not hers, and that it was silly for her to have a job when she didn’t need one. Secretly, I thought her too fragile for meaningful, full-time employment. My delicate dandelion upset and scattered by the slightest breeze. Mine to protect, to shelter, and to guard against the wicked world she could not navigate on her own. And so I don’t blame her for what she did, later. I hate her for it, but I don’t blame her.
To fill the long hours of her empty days, she took classes at the local college. The third year of our marriage, she signed up for a beginning Spanish class, taught by a brilliant and charming professor. Or at least I’ve always imagined that he was. I never knew him, never saw his face. He offered to tutor her, over a drink or six, and she accepted. She shouldn’t have. She knew she shouldn’t have, but she did it anyway, and then she did it again.
I understood. I was away, on business.
I returned from a trip to Colombia on a cool, dew-dropped spring night, several days before I was expected. Fresh Gerber daisies in one hand, champagne in the other, a Tiffany necklace in my briefcase, I walked through the door and said, “Hello? Darling, I’m home.” The alarm was disarmed. She always kept it on, when I was away and she was at home. It made her feel safe, she said.
The living room was empty, but the television was turned on, and a movie crashed and sang, unintelligible and loud in the background. The kitchen was in disarray, dirtied and stained by the labors of a well-cooked meal. Pots and pans lined the sink, the last bubbles of dish soap slowly disappearing into the cloudy water that filled them. Two half-emptied plates sat abandoned on the kitchen table.
I glanced out the beveled glass of the back door, thinking she might be sitting on the porch, smoking the cigarettes that functioned as poor replacements for her long lost booze. No luck. I looked around for signs of stolen alcohol, certain I would find them, and I blamed myself for being away. I prayed she was sleeping in our bedroom, merely sleeping. Not passed out and obliterated like a teenage drunk. Not like a permanent child, a rudderless little girl, waiting for direction, or the comfort of boundaries. Not waiting for mom, or dad, or me to cut off the excess. Not like she was when I found her.
Halfway up the stairs, I heard them. The door at the end of the upstairs hallway was closed and locked. I still don’t know why she locked it.
I stood there with my hand on the doorknob, listening. She sounded different than she did with me. Not happier or more satisfied—not less, just different. Our marriage, the whole of it, was filled with nonsense questions and clichéd answers. We never really said much to each other, nothing of substance, anyway. Not since we were young and caught up in those first, red-cheeked and starry-eyed days and nights. Not for a long time. I thought about walking away from that door, out of the house and down the street to the motel next to the freeway. Thought about staying away for a few days. I could come back home when I was expected. When she wasn't fucking someone else in our bed.
But I couldn’t do that, short-sighted and unforgiving as I am. So I knocked on the door and said, “Darling, I’m home,” and then I walked back down the stairs, through the front door, and out to my car. Parked in the driveway of a house I’d never lived in.
Twelve Texas citizens unanimously agreed I was responsible for my sin, and that I deserved an all expenses paid, nonrefundable vacation at one of our state’s finest criminal detention facilities. Beyond a reasonable doubt.
The victim’s family spoke in turn, as was their right, and they asked the judge to “treat me as a Christian would.” I wouldn’t have been so magnanimous. After all, their beautiful daughter was dead. The one they’d chauffeured to day care, dance lessons, school, and soccer practice. The daughter just married and with life full ahead. Grandkids promised. Now dead in the ground. Because of me, and yet still, forgiveness trumped their steel thoughts of retribution, thoughts that surely lay asleep, hiding in their wounded souls.
I waited for the judge to hand down my sentence. I felt like a child again, waiting in my upstairs bedroom for my father and the wooden boot-pull that was his punishment tool of choice. I rarely felt anything other than fear while I waited for him. Never aggrieved or unjustly accused. I knew the rules my parents had laid down and the consequences of breaking them, though my mother’s patient words occasionally could convince my father to grant me a reprieve.
A surefire path to a whipping was through dishonesty. If I lied, and my parents caught me in it (they invariably did), I had no recourse, no appeal. No hope except that time would stand still, or that the world would magically change and my parents would forget my crime. Of course, they never forgot. I didn’t expect it to happen here, either. Stifled by the humidity, sweat bleeding through my suit, I sat in a hot Texas courtroom and wished my mother was jury foreman.
I was only sentenced to three years, and I was relieved. I could never figure out how they arrived at three. 38 months, to be exact. I knew I what I did was wrong. Wasn’t that enough? I vaguely remember the judge mumbling from his elevated pulpit, the mouthpiece of public will. I remember he said something about “unusual circumstances” and “service to country.” I remember I thought her life was worth more than the value of what I was about to lose, that my good deeds in the past had no bearing on the feelings of her family in their grief. I was also completely, utterly relieved. Twenty years was the sentence I was facing; three years sounded like a snap, in comparison.
A few weeks later, I was on my way to Huntsville, a town familiar to me only from maps. I was graciously welcomed by a towering statue, an idol in the image of Sam Houston, the founding father of Texas and hero of the Battle of Goliad. He was one last guard to watch over the city and its prisoners. I arrived that first day, the sun setting through the pines and closing in on morning somewhere I wasn’t. Sharply dressed in an orange jumpsuit, my personal possessions safely stored with my attorney, I was driven through the gates and then onward to my new home.
I was taken first to the assistant warden’s office, for ‘orientation.’ He glanced up at me from his seat at a small metal desk, but said nothing, instead turning to share a look with the other man in the room—the assistant warden’s assistant. The warden stood, and without introduction began to lecture me on the rules and regulations of the prison. At the same time, his assistant instructed me to remove my clothes, so that I could be searched.
“Now see here, young fella. We don’t tolerate no funny business is this here state facility. You will do as you’re told to. No less an’ no more,” the warden said, while his assistant checked for any contraband I might have hidden in my intestines. The assistant pulled and tugged at my penis, and he and the warden made jokes.
“This gawd-damn thang ain’t good fer nothin,’ Bawss.” The assistant to the assistant said, hands still wrapped around the object of their derision.
“Well he ain’t gonna be usin’ it fer much ‘round here. Innit that right, boy?” The question was directed at me, but I said nothing.
I thought perhaps this was part of my atonement, or so I told myself, and I could bear it—could bear anything—for three years. Only three years.
Even when I felt something unnaturally large penetrate me--something about the size of a baton, I thought-- I kept my arms at their sides, and I don’t know how I kept from killing them. I’d never wanted something so badly in my life, to see them lying there in pools of their own blood. Maybe except for how much I wanted that night back, the night that led me there. I wanted the chance to crack their skulls against the hard concrete walls. To take their billy clubs and pound their faces until every last human feature was reduced to tissue and pulp.
They finally grew bored by my silence, and the warden summoned a short, pudgy guard to escort me to my new cell. We walked through a series of gates. Each one clanged shut and locked behind me. A prison within a prison, and I half-chuckled when I caught myself expecting the guard to say, “Now go to your room, and wait for your father.”
We reached a row of cells, and the guard stopped in front of the first. He hollered out to some faceless gatekeeper, and the bars slid down their invisible tracks, a false open door. A dead end leading nowhere, a bunk lay flush against each of the longer walls, and a toilet loomed like a throne, front and center on the back wall for all the admiring public to see. My cellmate was a diminutive man named Pancho. He glanced at me briefly as I entered, furtive and nonplussed. He didn’t speak. I couldn’t.
The whir and cackle of the ancient ventilation system provided the only sound, a funeral dirge that ceased abruptly, appropriately, in perfect time with the resounding clank of the steel bars slamming shut.
The next morning, I woke up. Only I thought I must still be dreaming. The smell was what convinced me otherwise. My dreams have always been filled with images, with voices and tactile sensations. But I never smelled anything in them. And, god, what a smell it was, piss, puke, feces, sweat, and the stifling, oppressive humidity. All mixed together in the prison, the rock, like a festering cauldron of stone soup.
Pancho rose, quick and silent, and washed his face in a small basin. I watched him through the sleepy slits of my eyes, opened only enough to close if he should return my stare. He moved with an efficiency I admired, something I lacked until my shuffling feet grew accustomed to the small space that was now home. I shared a cell with Pancho for three years, and in all that time he spoke to me exactly twice. The first time would be later that day, after lunch.
Months after I arrived, I learned from other inmates that Pancho was well-respected—feared, even—by the other prisoners. He was in for kidnapping, extortion, and murder. He would never leave. For more than a decade, I was told, Pancho served as kingpin of the prison’s Latino constituents. He had abruptly resigned his post, several years before, without explanation. Or that’s what I was told, anyway, by those few who would talk about Pancho.
“El Santo,” they called him, and when I asked about my stoic roommate, the killer saint, they said “No te preocupes.”
The social hierarchy that exists in prison is clearly defined and immutable. The nature of one’s offense perfectly correlates to social status in the concrete jungle. At the top are the men convicted of ‘respectable’ crimes: murder, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and the like. Prison’s middle class consists of criminals convicted of theft, forgery, arson, and assorted victimless crimes. At the bottom, the prisoners who fear daily for their lives, their virginity, or their sanity are those convicted of sex crimes. Rapists (Rapos), child molesters (Chesters), and those guilty of other crimes involving sex, are targets from the moment they cross through the front gate.
An animal kingdom regulated and ruled by aggressive beasts. The opposite of human nature as God intended it. Or so I thought, and so I was wrong just as I always was, and am, among my clouded conceptions and arrogance. I spoke rarely of my crime but, when it became unavoidable, I said ‘manslaughter,’ and the half-truth bothered my conscience until I told it to lighten up. Take a load off. We’re in prison, you and me. And the old rules do not apply. Not yours, in any event. Perhaps we can reacquaint ourselves sometime later on down the line, when I don’t have the multiplied Devil aiming for my quickened descent.
Before I began my sentence, my attorney arranged for me to meet several of his former clients. Over prime rib and nicoise salad, three convicted felons provided a crash course in the rudiments of prison survival. Or, if not surviving, at least making it through, across to the other side of the wire, mind and soul still capable of emerging from their hidden recesses, in which they will remain, and must remain, if a sane man wishes to emerge armed with the faculties of the free man he once was.
I had trouble understanding their prison jargon, but I remember they said never to back down from a confrontation. Don’t start them, they said. Don’t antagonize or agitate. If I had to fight, I should fight as if my life depended on it, for it surely did. Like a pack of dogs, beat down and chained to steel polls in the stifling warehouse of a southern breeding farm, felons are jumpy and paranoid, as liable to flinch in fear as lash out in aggression. They said to choose my friends well, that those I picked and those that picked me would reflect back on my reputation, accurately or not. They told me not to gamble, to offer favors or accept them, and that snitching on another inmate was punishable by rape, by death, or worse. They said the guards were not to be trusted.
I kept this advice in mind, as I followed the other prisoners to the lunch room, my first full day inside. A small black woman handed me a tray, and I stifled the automatic courtesy reflex that welled up from years of ‘yes, Ma’am’s and ‘thank you’s, mimicking the rude ways of the inmates ahead of me. I sat by myself at a long, metal bench table, eyes focused on the food in front of me, Salisbury steak and green beans masquerading as sustenance. I concentrated on making myself as small and ordinary as possible. I didn’t belong there, at least I told myself so, and I was in no hurry to make friends.
But it was foolish to think I could blend in. The few white prisoners clustered together in a corner of the cafeteria, well-muscled and tattooed, the fluorescent lights reflecting off their shiny heads. I was not one of them. My expensive suits were hung neatly in the darkness of a small storage facility, but I stuck out among the other prisoners as if I’d been wearing my finest. I was the new kid in school. The bullies had noticed.
As I reached for my plastic spoon, the bench shuddered beneath me. I looked to my left and saw an obese Mexican. Folds of slothful fat flowed down his body, an ever-widening volcano, and his head like a miniature caldera. A reverse caricature, The Virgin Mary was stitched on his immense right forearm, the image stretched and distended by the fat cells added since its inking. He caught my stare and smiled without mirth. I felt someone else sit to my right, but I didn’t turn or look away. “This table’s reserved amigo.” The fat man grinned, showing his soiled teeth, a perversion of the humor they pretended.
“Really, Sorry about that,” I said. “I’ll move.” I rose to leave, but the fat man reached out and grabbed my arm with the pudgy fingers of his right hand. I heard a deep voice chuckling behind my back, but I didn’t turn.
“That’s right, ese, but leave the food here. It don’t belong to you no more.” With his free hand, he reached and stabbed my Salisbury steak with his plastic fork, so I grabbed his wrist and twisted it hard clockwise, forcing him to rise from the bench and throwing his head against the table. As I applied pressure, intent on breaking his arm, I was grabbed from behind by two heavy arms. My unmet lunch companion, I thought. He dragged me from the table, and other faceless men helped to hold me upright and still. The fat man slowly rose from the table and touched his forehead, checking for blood. Finding none, he reached in his shoe and retrieved a small, sharpened piece of metal; packing tape wrapped around one end. The other inmates had noticed the commotion, and they quickly formed a circle around us.
The rest unfolded in slow motion, my adrenaline-flooded heart frantic and near to bursting. I heard shouts, curses, animal whoops and screams, primal and soulless, ready for blood or the prospect of it. Two guards tried to squeeze through the throng, but their progress was slow and unenthusiastic.
“Now I cut you, cabron.”
I struggled to free myself, but a separate man held each of my limbs and another arm was around my neck. The fat man stood on the bench and held his arms aloft, a violent evangelist. The crowd roared its approval and surged forward for a better look, like medieval commoners at a hanging. Macabre entertainment was the order of the day; anything to discourage their minds from the reality of hard routine, exulting in misery worse than their own. Torture transmuted into spectacle.
The fat man lowered his crude knife to my face. The shiv floated for a moment, unsure of its destination, like a bloodhound deciding between the paths of two preys. Should he take my eyes, or was my face enough? Mind made up, the fat man flicked the metal in quick succession across each cheek. He held up the knife for the crowd, and I watched drops of my blood fall to the floor, drip-dripping like a leaky faucet.
The knife came down again, and the fat man carved two perpendicular lines in my forehead, slow and deep, filling my eyes with blood; a kaleidoscope fused with red and brown and pain. I could feel his hot breath and smell his prison stench, and I fell to the ground. I heard yells and whistles, white voices, authoritative and in charge, but only by a whisker. I saw pieces of inmates, legs and feet, trampling through the hazy periphery of my fading consciousness. My ears buzzed, and I heard muted footsteps scatter past. Threads of blood weaved across my eyes, a curtained shroud, white and black pinpricks winking in the red background. Faces faded in and out. Voices dimmed and then were quiet.
I woke up in my cell. My wounds had been bandaged. My face throbbed in time with my heartbeat, but the pain was soft and light. Pancho sat shirtless on the toilet seat at the foot of my bunk. He held a wet cloth in his hands and a bucket of water was at his feet. An outline of a cross was tattooed on his torso, spanning its width and length. I tried to ask him how long I had been unconscious, but he only shook his head, walked the short distance to his bed, and pulled down its thin sheet. I sighed and lay back down. As I replayed the day’s events on the dark ceiling of my cell, Pancho turned and spoke his words slow and thick with accent.
“You were lucky, my friend. God cannot help you here.”
The night I left my wife was the night of the accident.
I sat in my car, parked in the driveway of our house, sorting actual feelings from expected ones. Disparate emotions struggled for purchase, but I couldn't name them, derivatives of amazement, sadness, and confusion. They hummed through the low registers of my brain, more dully than I would have thought. Random and conflicting like two pianos playing different sonatas in the same small room. A dissonant orchestra skipping through my brain and through my heart; the music tinged with tiny bits of rage and love.
Immobile, I watched the house. The upstairs light—our bedroom light—turned on and then turned back off again. The downstairs was dark, save for the flickering television and the light shadows it cast onto the thin drapes.
I thought she might come rushing out the door. Naked under the robe I gave her for Christmas. She’d beg for my forgiveness. Plead for me to get out of the car and listen. Hear her side of it. Absolve her.
I would have forgiven her. I would have stayed. Or so I tell myself, at night, alone in my bed. But she didn’t come out. Not for the long hour I sat and waited, hoping she would.
I timed it. Watched like a real sadist, as the lazy digital clock counted off the increments, the end of my marriage on a tight deadline.
Finally, I left the car and walked past the freshly cut lawn, up the sidewalk toward the house. On the way to the garage, I turned and looked through the beveled glass of the front door. I don’t know what I expected to see. What I saw was nothing except my reflection, divided into tiny convex prisms, a funhouse mirror. No fun on this side or the other. I wondered if they were arguing, or embarrassed, or if he was back inside of her.
Maybe they were ashamed. I was ashamed.
I walked into the garage and looked for what I needed, my toolbox, charcoal and lighter fluid, A few sticks of firewood I’d stacked for the mild winters, my 20-gauge Remington, A competition model, the trigger and sights were gold-plated and a box of shells.
I looked at the garage door and thought about going inside and walking upstairs with the shotgun. Instead, I pressed the button for the garage door and ducked as I walked beneath it.
Some men would have stayed. Better men.
I walked across the Texas-shaped stepping stones through the shrubbery on the side of the house and then went to the backyard gate to fetch my dog Luke. No way does she get the dog. No fucking way. I whistled and knocked. I made a real racket. I knew she could hear it but, still, she stayed inside.
Luke’s black nose led his rangy body through the opening, almost before I’d undone the latch. He bounded for the car, and I followed him there. I backed out from the driveway, and we road down the length of the quiet cul-de-sac, past the wide driveways and the picture-perfect lawns of neighbors I’d never met. The porch lights of the houses were all aglow; bright, silent sentinels standing watch over the safest neighborhood in a small Texas town
My wife named him Luke, and he was a steady, reliable influence in her life, a rock.
She told me, one day, that she needed a dog. Said she needed companionship and protection while I was away on business. So we went to the pound and found Luke, one of the few unclaimed purebreds. Most people wanted a puppy, but Luke was four years old.
We’d wandered for hours, past the miniature prisons that housed those dozens of unwanted dogs and cats. They were abandoned, lost, or plain unlucky. My wife stopped at every cage. Fell in love with every pitiful prisoner. Each lost cause. Ooohhed and ahhhed and made an unbreakable case for adopting each pup we passed. After an hour of looking, I turned back and stared at the rows of cages. Like death row for dogs, except no one cared. Certiorari unavailable. Truthfully, I didn’t get all that worked up about it. Means to an end, I thought. Get the wife a dog. Maybe she’d be more content, pacified.
Just then, I saw a yellow paw thrust through the bars, a few cages behind us. Pathetic. A hundred cages in the row and one single paw jutting out between the bars, like a stop sign. It was a plea before Caesar, the last words of a mute.
“Found him,” I said.
My wife turned and looked at me with a doubtful face. She said nothing, but took my hand as we retraced our lonesome steps.
I wondered how such a gentle, well-trained animal ended up within days of a sharp needle and hot furnace. When we told the old lady in charge of adoptions which one we wanted, she clapped her hands to her mouth and said, "Oh, thank the Lord." Luke was set for euthanization the very next morning. My good deed for the day was done.
A yellow Labrador, Luke was a giant of his breed, 110 pounds of lean muscle. Mean as a butterfly. For us, he was a surrogate child, arbitrator, and companion.
I taught Luke how to shake, and he tackled his new skill with enthusiasm. Sitting and staring up at me, grinning and constantly swiping my thigh with his paw, Luke was determined to meet me as many times as I was willing. Like he thought I’d forgotten he was my dog.
Recognizing a good deal, Luke offered his paw whenever he wanted anything. Whether he needed to go outside to the restroom, was ready for dinner, or was just bored and looking for Mom or Dad to throw a tennis ball, the newly-learned shake was the precursor, the demand, the sign he needed something from his family.
Short-tempered as I am, that persistent paw turned quickly from amusing to annoying. Occasionally, I curled my newspaper and smacked his nose, a nasty trick for a faithful companion. He ran away to the bedroom, beneath the bed where capricious master and sports page could not reach.
When my wife and I fought, the playing field was level, a barb for a barb. Frustration matched by uncaring, anger parried by indifference. Luke’s only defense was sincere confusion and a desire to set right whatever I thought he’d done wrong. I didn’t treat him nearly so well as he deserved, an unfortunate truth that applies equally to those I know who deserve less, and to the few that deserve more. Fortunately, Luke never held it against me.
We headed for the lake, down I-35 to a poorly maintained state highway, and from there to a pot-holed farm-to-market. Half an hour from the lake was the last stop for food, drinks, unleaded gas and human conversation: a feed-store with a tin roof and no handicapped parking. My cell phone had lost its signal a few miles back, like it always did in this part of the county. The lake house had no land line, which was a good thing. After a few glasses of scotch, I knew I’d be tempted to call her. It wouldn’t be pretty.
The door chime clinked as I walked into the store, and I smiled and said hello to the owner. Elmer had owned the place for as long as I could remember. What he lacked in teeth and general appearance, he made up for in kindness and gentility. When I was a boy, he taught me how to tie my own flies. We fished together every summer, until I grew up and stopped coming as often.
“Ain’t seen you in awhile. Where’s that pretty wife of yours?”
I grimaced and said, “She couldn’t make it this time, old friend.”
“Didn’t I tell you she was a keeper? Yessir. A fine young lady. I ever tell you ‘bout the time she helped load them fertilizer bags up into my truck one mornin' when my hip was actin’ up?” He coughed and settled himself on the tall stool behind the cash register.
I looked up, ready to hear it for the eighth or ninth time.
“Oh, I reckon I have,” Elmer said. “Sweet as a peach, that one. You tell her I said she needs to come around more often. I’d sure like that.”
“I’m sure she would, too,” I said.
I bought some light bulbs and 10, 40-pound bags of corn seed that I did not need and would never use. I loaded them into the car myself. Elmer stood a few feet away, wishing he were a younger man. Luke’s head was sticking out the open window on the passenger side of my car. Elmer walked over and scratched him behind the ears.
“Keep an eye out for the coyotes this year. Ain’t rained much, and Jimmy Trotter says they got a hold to two of his hog-hunters.” Trotter was the ex-warden at the state prison. He owned a parcel of land adjacent to mine. He spent his retirement flying through the woods on horseback, accompanied by nine or ten dogs, trying to put wild boar on the endangered species list.
“Thanks, Elmer. Don’t worry about us. I brought a shotgun, and I’ll make sure Luke stays near the house.”
I shut the trunk, shook Elmer’s hand and got back into the car. “Come on out to the house in the morning, if you feel like fishing,” I said.
“I got things to do, unlike you. Add to that, you can’t ever get out the bed early enough to catch nothin,’” he said, shaking his head.
I smiled and said, “I’ll see you in the morning, old man.”
In the rearview mirror, I saw him standing in the gravel parking lot, watching us go. Six months later, while I was in jail, I got a letter from Elmer’s daughter telling me that he’d died of cancer. Alone in his house, no one knew he was sick.
60 years ago, my great-grandparents built a house on a plot of land in East Texas. Now it was just an old hunting lodge. An add-on to an add-on, filled with dirty bunks and mounted deer heads, the place I caught my first fish and fired my first rifle. It had passed down through my family until it devolved to me and my sister. Soon as the will was probated, I sent her a cashier’s check for her share of it, seemed fair, considering she hadn’t been there in 15 years. Doubt she ever thought about it.
I turned the car left onto a gravel road. Hidden from the highway, a blue county sign marked the entrance to Lost Indian Camp Trail, though we already knew it. We’d been there dozens of times before.
Luke had always loved the lake. A lazy couch potato at home, he transformed once we hit the unpaved road that led some miles up to the old house. Whining and sniffing like he’d caught a whiff of apocalypse, I’d roll down the back window and let in the country air, full of critters and insects, earth and grass, endless unmarked lands to explore and conquer. Luke caught it all at once, the anticipation of a headlong run into the woods and around the lake, through the water and back again, unfettered by tall fences or leash laws, just God’s grace and bounty all around.
We came to the locked gate guarding the entrance to the lake house road. I opened my door. Got out and spun the combination until the tumblers lined up and the lock fell free. Luke flew out the open driver’s door and set out like a shot toward the house, still a couple of miles distant. There were no stars, and the quarter moon was well-hidden.
To keep the coyotes away, we kept a fire through the night whenever we stayed at the lake. A great bonfire, incongruent in the stifling summer heat of East Texas, but there was no fire yet, no light, and I smelled rain heavy in the air and soon to break.
In the dark, nearly blind save for the fireflies and pale moon trying to peak through the edge of a line of thunderclouds, I gave chase. A hundred yards ahead, I caught up to Luke. He was waiting, chest-deep in the creek that bordered the road, and the only sounds were the cicadas and the wind rustling wet and lazy through the underbrush.
Car still at the gate, I hopped over the creek, and Luke and I began to run. We ran through the woods like a pair of felons escaping to freedom, through the trees and away from the road and the city. From fences and from all else, we ran like the Devil was on our heels, like we would die if we ever stopped.
Half an hour later and out of breath, we arrived. Luke disappeared into the shadowed lake to stalk his sworn enemies: the treacherous dragonfly and the evil lake toad. I went to turn on the water pump.
We called it the lake house, although ‘lake’ was a generous euphemism. The water was a short walk from the back porch, and only an acre in size, small enough to swim across. The property was 100 miles from where I’d lived with my wife, and we stayed there a couple weekends each month. More often since we’d found Luke. He’d swim in that damn, dirty lake until he died. Until he reached his prize, a mallard decoy with a looped string attached to it. He gave no regard to the blazing sun; even less to the thin layer of ice that sometimes coated the lake during our short winters. Undaunted, that duck would be his. No matter how far I threw it, no matter how far the trip to shore.
I sat at a picnic table close to the short pier, and broke the seal on a liter of good scotch. The joy I’d felt an instant before disappeared as the first drop splashed in my plastic cup. I lit a fire, but felt no better. I watched Luke, his nose constantly up and down, switching between earth and dark sky. I missed my wife. I missed her clumsy throws of Luke’s decoy into the lake. The way she hopped up and down and clapped when he brought it back.
I fell asleep, maybe for an hour or two. When I woke up, Luke was standing beside me, his spine beneath my right hand, and I heard coyotes singing in the distance. I added some more logs to the fire. Luke lay down beside me, head raised from the ground, watching the woods around us. The fire was warm; the chair comfortable. Feeling a little better, I closed my eyes again. I decided it wouldn’t rain, after all.
It was Luke’s growl that finally woke me. My hand was on his neck, and the low vibration shivered up my arm and opened my eyes. Rain was cascading down through the trees. Smoldering ash and half-burned pine logs were all that was left of the fire. I followed Luke’s gaze, looking for the source of his distress. Fifty yards away, I made out the vague shapes of starved coyotes slinking their way towards us. The moon had snuck out from behind the edge of a thundercloud, and its reflection bounced off four sets of yellow eyes. Luke stood up and bared his teeth.
Before I could say ‘heel,’ Luke had flung himself, pell-mell into their midst. He slammed into the first with a viciousness I never expected. His advantage was soon gone, however, as two of the other coyotes immediately attacked his flanks. I leapt up, slightly drunk, and ran for the house. My shotgun was in the car, back at the gate, but there were several more in the house. I hoped I could reach one, fast enough to save Luke.
I turned away from the fight and started for the front door. One of the coyotes blocked my path, halfway between me and the front door. Confident the other three could handle Luke, the fourth one had come for me.
I reached and grabbed a log from the fire with my right hand and threw it at the coyote. Before it was halfway there, I turned and raced for the back porch. I heard four-legged footsteps cutting the grass behind me. I hit the steps of the back porch and was about to turn the door’s handle, when I felt a vice on my leg.
I flopped around just in time to see the coyote shaking my shin like a dead rooster. I saw his sick eyes and could’ve counted each mangy bristle on his thin coat. Starving or rabid, but why they attacked us wouldn’t matter if I was too dead to figure it. I kicked him solidly with my free leg, three times in the head. Hard enough to cause some damage, I thought. Instead, he bit harder. His jaws like serrated pliers, he shook his head, back and forth, tossing my leg like a bloody marionette. Relentless, his teeth sank further, until they reached bone. Out of dignified options, I screamed.
I reached down and tried to hook my fingers in the coyotes’ eye sockets. I got to one of them, but my thumb slipped out before I could do any real damage. I knew Luke was dead, as brave and faithful as I could hope for, but no match for the other three coyotes.
I’d heard a faint, final yelp a few seconds before, in the direction of where I’d last seen Luke and the other coyotes. Finished with my dog, they were probably coming to help their friend.
I saw a shadow racing out of the woods. Straight for me, and I was running out of time. My options were few—fast shrinking to none.
Against odds, the shadow turned into Luke.
He barreled into the coyote, all snarls and flashing teeth. Hit the coyote like a sledgehammer. Its jaw clamped to my leg, the coyote’s throat was exposed. Luke tore it out. Shook the coyote like a stuffed toy, until its head was half off, and blood was all over us.
I tried to grab Luke. He snarled at me and lunged, but quickly recognized me and my voice telling him over and over again, “Easy.” He turned back to the dead coyote, but I grabbed his collar and walked him towards the lake. He walked in and lay down in the shallows, panting and drinking great gulps of the muddy lake water. The rain fell harder, and it washed away the blood from my leg and the rest of me, like the lake had done for Luke.
I grabbed a shotgun from the house and walked over to the other coyotes. One was dead. The other two were bleeding out, one trying to breathe through what was left of his throat; the other had his insides torn out and would likely feel the vultures pecking at his intestines before he finally expired. I raised the shotgun and shot both of them in the head.
Shaking, I walked back to the shore and collapsed in the mud next to Luke. Like nothing had happened. Aside from the blood and the four dead coyotes, we looked perfect and ordinary. Just a dog and his master, lying side by side, enjoying a cool fall night in the peaceful countryside.
I ran my hands over Luke’s body, checking for damage. He was bleeding from wounds on both flanks, and one of the coyotes had torn a vicious chunk from his snout. My leg was bleeding.
I rolled up my pants’ leg and saw speckles of white bone beneath the thin, mangled layer of flesh above my shin. I tore my shirt in half and tied one of the pieces tight around the wound. I wasn’t about to die, but the amount of blood was alarming, and I knew there was nothing I could do to fix it, short of a tourniquet. I was starting to feel some pain, despite the scotch and the adrenaline. We both needed a doctor.
We limped back to the car, through a torrent of rain and two painful miles away. In the backseat, I found some ibuprofen in my Dopp kit. I knocked back three of them, found a jar of Skippy, and shoved two peanut butter-covered painkillers down the back of Luke’s throat. Despite the circumstances, I laughed as Luke licked and licked, and licked some more, trying to dislodge the pesky peanut butter from the roof of his mouth.
We passed by Elmer’s. He kept odd hours, and I hoped the store was still open, but it was dark and the roof shone dully in the moonlight. I banged my cell phone against the dash, trying to get a signal, nothing. As we approached the Interstate, I tried the phone again, tried to call my wife. She had the number for the 24 hour emergency vet on a magnetic business card stuck to the refrigerator. My leg was still bleeding, and I was starting to feel a little dizzy. I blinked my eyes over and over, but I couldn’t get them to focus the way I knew they should. I resolved to stop at the next gas station.
Cradling the cell phone between my ear and shoulder, I turned my head from the road and looked into the back of the car. Luke stared back at me, rump on the backseat, paws on the floor, and then looked past to the road ahead, scanning for signs of undiscovered territory, ready for the next adventure.
He was hurt, worse than I was. Still, he sat unflinching, ready for anything. His eyes shifted left, away from the road, and I turned back around in my seat. Too late.
The collision was terrific.
They say accidents unfold in slow motion, and they are right. As I crossed the median, I recognized the low profile of a Mustang GT. I saw every tiny line separating each steel part from the others. I watched the little horse on the front grille disintegrate under the crush of four thousand pounds, traveling at eighty miles per hour. I glimpsed the terrified face of a pretty girl. I saw the whole of my life; I saw the whole of hers. Luck had deserted us. Two lonely vagrants on the side of the road, begging spare change from fate.
I turned my head and body, trying to shield myself from the coming collision. Unmoored, Luke sailed from the back and hit the windshield, the terrible thud lost against the piercing scream of twisted metal. I rebounded off the steering wheel and dashboard like a crash test dummy. The airbags stayed in their compartments.
My eyes blinked open, and I was upside down. I hung from the seatbelt and watched as drops of blood splashed down on the roof. I reached out for Luke, as far as I could with my right hand.
I felt fur, just at the edge of my fingertips. I shaved him every summer, a remedy against the unrelenting heat. My wife had taken Luke to the groomer’s the previous week. Eighty dollars, I thought, was a bit much for a dog haircut. She paid it, she said, because they took care of him. They understood when she said “Shave him, but he’s not a fucking greyhound. Give him some dignity.”
The seatbelt bit into my chest. It wouldn’t unlock. It had done its job and would continue to, until someone cut me out. I tried again to put my hand on Luke. He lay like he always had, chest down and legs akimbo. Waiting for his master to return from the grocery store, the video store, or from any other place he wasn’t welcome. Faithful and vigilant, no complaints except a swollen tongue protesting the unrelenting summer heat.
The same as that, except Luke’s mouth was wide open, tongue out and swollen out of all proportion. His breath came too fast, and his only movement was the heaving up and down of his shattered ribcage. My face was wet and I leaned over as far as I could. My door was crushed onto my left side, and it would take 18 months to heal the broken bones and ruptured organs. I felt no pain, and I hope he didn’t, either.
I reached out and touched the side of Luke’s snout. He leaned forward, as well as he could, as he always did when I scratched a particularly troublesome spot.
Luke raised his paw: “Shake?” He raised the unsteady pad a few inches off the seat, and I stretched my hand as far as I could, but it trembled and fell short.
With the rest of his fading energy and will, Luke raised himself just enough so that his longest hairs brushed the ends of my fingertips. His coat was stained reddish brown, but an untouched patch of yellow hair winked a circle around his left eye. He waved his paw at me again, one more time. I tried to scream at him. I tried to say “GOD DAMN IT! You do NOT FUCKING DIE. One more minute and we’ll be fine. Everything will be fine.” I tried to help him; I swear I did. Save him as he’d saved me. But my throat was dry, and nothing would come out. The dog I talked to more than my wife, and I couldn’t say a word.
He tried to shut his mouth and lick his nose, like he always had after dinner, searching for the last bits of kibble, lodged in the fur between his mouth and nose. But it wasn’t working, and the drops of blood came faster than he could swallow. He whined, so low I could barely make it out. His breath was ragged and his eyes were half shut. I heard sirens in the distance and swirling lights pulsed in and out of my vision. I felt them vibrating in my skull.
And I held on to a blood-caked paw as Luke died, and for a long time after.