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Archive for April, 2016

The final installment of “Dogs.” Browse previous posts to read Part 1 or its “prequel,” “Double Gold.”

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Dogs of an Unknown Origin: Part 2

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The next morning, Marvin waited until half-past eight before heading out to Skyler’s. Someone had called his trailer five times in the night. No one on the line—no voice, no breath. He hadn’t bothered answering the fifth time. From his bed, Marvin had counted to one full minute before the ringing stopped.

Skyler’s truck was missing from the drive and the shades were drawn. No one answered when Marvin knocked, so he checked for a key under a brick by the door. There was the damp outline on the concrete where a key had once been. He nosed around the stoop for a few minutes, but there weren’t many places to hide anything—just a dented cat dish and a stack of clay flower pots. He checked under each, to make sure. Then he got back in his car and headed to Peggy’s.

Peggy lived five miles down the road, near a massive culvert that ran under the highway. She owned pasture on both sides of the road, and her cattle tunneled from one pasture to the other through the culvert. Once or twice, Marvin had caught a glimpse of cows trailing single-file out of the earth and into the sunshine as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

A man opened the door. “Who’re you?”

Marvin gave the man his name, and the man looked behind him, as if to seek advice from someone in a distant room. Eventually, he gave up and led Marvin inside.

The house was stuffy. They reached a faded plum couch and the man gestured for Marvin to sit. He did, and the man sat at the other end, hands clasped between his knees. His eyes were the kind that turned down sharply at the corners, so that he looked perpetually put-upon.

“You her renter?” the man asked. “She said the guy’s a Mexican fella. You look Indian, though.”

“I’m Marvin Enos,” he repeated. “I live down the road. I work with him. With Skyler.”

“Alright, well, sorry—I can’t say I know you. Haven’t lived around here for a while.” Marvin tried to think of what to say, but the man went on. “Well, Peggy ain’t here. I’m watching her place for her.” He took a drink from a cup that stood on the coffee table, beside a massive Art Noveau book with gilded lettering. “She’s in the hospital. Got a blood infection, doctoring cows. Stuck herself with a needle. Anyway, I came out here to look after things for a little while.” He took another drink. “I’m her ex-husband,” he added.

“Is she alright?”

The man was staring into space. “She’ll be fine.”

Marvin explained that Skyler hadn’t picked him up for work that morning, and asked if he could borrow the key to check on him.

“He’s a young man, ain’t he? I expect he’s sleeping in.” But he went to the kitchen and plucked a key from a nail over the sink. “Bring it back soon as you can. If I’m not here, slide it under the door. I’m gonna go visit her ’round one.”

The man looked at a space on the wall. It was empty. He scanned the room, perplexed, and finally found the clock. It was just past nine. Marvin stood and faced the clock with him. They both watched the second-hand make swift, confounding circles.

*

The air conditioner roared gently from its place down the hall. Marvin called for Skyler, but there was no answer—not even an echo. The house swallowed his voice, as if he’d entered a vacuum.

The iguana was on its rock. It opened one yellow eye when Marvin stood over it. “Hello,” said Marvin. Its food and water dishes were empty.

Marvin went to the kitchen. Four plastic yellow cups stood in the cabinet. He filled one at the tap, drank it down, then splashed more water inside and returned to the living room. He opened the terrarium and poured the water in the iguana’s dish. In the fridge he found little baggies of diced fruit and vegetables, and filled its food dish with the contents of one baggy. He fit the lid back on the terrarium and pressed it down tight.

Then Marvin went through every room of the house, starting with the bedroom. It was a sparse room—just a bed, a dresser, the elk painting, a mirror, and a closet. A beer can stood atop the dresser. Marvin opened a few drawers. Unexpectedly, each item was folded and arranged in neat piles—even the underwear. A single suit—navy blue—hung in the closet. Moving around the empty bedroom, Marvin had the sense that some fundamental shift had occurred in this dim, airless space. The world outside seemed distant, a little implausible.

Back in the kitchen, Marvin inspected the contents of the fridge more closely: a 24-pack—mostly intact—and several submarine-shaped objects wrapped in tinfoil. He unwrapped one. A sandwich on white bread, with lettuce, turkey, and cheese. Marvin tucked the tinfoil around it and replaced it. A carton of ice cream and an ice tray in the freezer. A few cans and half-empty boxes of crackers in the pantry. Marvin looked out the kitchen window at the brilliant peonies, the empty highway beyond them.

In the living room, he went to the bookshelf and picked up the photograph of the old man. He turned the frame this way and that. The photo was glossy, slightly wrinkled. He popped off the back of the frame and removed the photo. It was a magazine cut-out. There was a section of an article on the back, part of another picture—some rainforest. He replaced the photo. Then, he picked up the nearest Reader’s Digest hardcover. When he’d flipped through every page of the book, he picked up another.

He was flipping through a book from the bottom shelf when a folded sheet of paper fell from it. In the center of the paper, in a shaky, feminine hand, someone had written the words, “Even if your name is a burden.”

That was all.

There were some scribbles at the top of the page where the old woman had tried to get the pen to work.

Marvin folded the paper. He balanced it on his fingertips as if offering it up to the room. The air conditioner stirred the house smells around him.

From outside came the crunch of gravel under tires. Marvin stuffed the paper in approximately the same spot in the book, replaced the book on the shelf, and went to the window.

The man who climbed out of Skyler’s truck looked like Skyler. But as he inspected Marvin’s car, Marvin could see he wasn’t Skyler. He wore Skyler’s sunglasses. And when he smiled as he strode up the walk, the glasses cut into his cheeks. But Marvin knew he wasn’t Skyler.

Marvin stood in the doorway as the man climbed the steps.

“I stopped by your place to pick you up.” The man pushed past him, into the house. He went over to the terrarium and peered at the iguana. “You fed Hector.” He took off the sunglasses. “Skyler’s my little brother.” He turned the glasses over in his hands. “I’ll be living here now. If that’s okay with you.” He smiled and his teeth were small and square. “My name’s Bernie.”

“Skyler gave you his truck?”

Bernie shrugged. He was looking around the house.

“Where is he?”

Bernie said something Marvin didn’t catch as he walked into the kitchen.

Marvin followed him. “What?”

“He went home.” Bernie opened the fridge and took out a sandwich and rolled down the tinfoil.

“To Guatemala?”

“Guatemala.” Bernie took a big bite of the sandwich. “Absolutely,” he said around the food. Then he sat down at the kitchen table and began eating in earnest. Marvin stood in the doorway. He felt light-headed, and thought distantly of women in bustle dresses, throwing their hands to their head; he felt faint. After a few moments, Marvin slowly approached the table. He sat in the chair opposite Bernie.

Bernie looked up impassively, jaws working, like a lion. His eyes were a flat, glassy brown. The contents of the tinfoil disappeared quickly. When he finished, Bernie brushed the crumbs from his mouth and started for the door. He stopped in the doorway and popped in a stick of gum. Then he said to Marvin, who sat frozen helplessly at the kitchen table, “You wanna work or not?”

*

Marvin drove Skyler’s truck, and found it shifted easily enough. Skyler had been a terrible driver, maybe never drove stick before. Marvin didn’t wear his seatbelt and neither did Bernie. Marvin waited to find out what Bernie wanted. But Bernie said nothing. Bernie did his share of the work, and didn’t turn his face from the stink of the animals like Skyler had done—though he whistled once, in appreciation, as he scooped up a skunk. They passed the day working silently.

On the way to the dump they found the old woman’s black cat dead on the side of the road. Her middle was smashed and Marvin had to use the shovel. “Old cat like that should have known to stay off the highway,” said Bernie. “Who knows why creatures do things.” At the dump, Bernie climbed into the truck bed and used a shovel to scoop the animals out like leaves. The black cat’s body was lost among them as they sailed in one stinking, wobbly mass into the pit.

Marvin felt sick as Bernie hopped from the bed and slammed the cargo gate shut. “I’m driving,” said Bernie.

*

Bernie pulled up outside Marvin’s trailer just past sundown. The nights had been getting cold, and Marvin’s sunflowers were beginning to droop. Their big forlorn heads circled his trailer like a crowd of mourners. He should pull them soon.

“What’re you looking at up there?” Bernie asked, and Marvin realized he’d been watching the sky. “Ain’t nothing up there for you.” Then he didn’t say anything for a long time. Bernie’s eyes cut over the shape of Marvin’s trailer in the dark, the color leeched away, just an ugly shape jutting out of the prairie like a ragged toenail.

“Skyler said you were some kind of”—Bernie waggled his hand—“crossdresser?” Marvin didn’t answer. “So, you must have known about Skyler. Being cousins, of a sort.” He seemed to think that was funny.

“Known what?”

Bernie leaned back and studied him. Then he broke out laughing.

Marvin felt as if his body were lifting away from itself, cell by cell. He felt as if his organs were weightless within his body, floating, bumping into each other.

Bernie settled down, actually wiping a few tears from his eyes. “Well,” he said. “I guess I could see that. You like women, don’t you? Hell, I don’t care either way, man. I mean—I care, for me. I have a distinct preference for females, same as you. What I’m saying is, as long as a guy can do his job, who cares about his private life, right?”

In the side-window, Marvin saw a car pull over on the highway and shut off its lights. Bernie glanced in the rearview.

“You got a girlfriend? That white girl on the oil field?”

“No—” Marvin shook his head. “How do you know about her?”

“You know how Skyler likes to talk,” said Bernie. Marvin couldn’t remember mentioning Liz to Skyler. He couldn’t even imagine it. Bernie turned in his seat to look at Marvin. “He left his truck to you.”

“Left it to me?”

Bernie glanced again in the rearview. “So what else?”

“I don’t know,” said Marvin.

“Come on, man.”

“I don’t know what you want.”

Bernie was watching him. “He ever tell you the story about how he got that lizard?”

“No.”

Bernie felt around under the dash and took out a pack of cigarettes. He offered a cigarette to Marvin, who shook his head. Then he took one out and lit it. Marvin hadn’t seen him smoke all day. He wondered if it was a signal for whoever waited in the car. Maybe it was the same car that had peeled out outside his mom’s place last night. “He tells everyone that story. He’d tell a stranger off the street that story. And he didn’t tell you?” Bernie leaked smoke against the dash. “Strange,” he said. “Very strange.”

There was another silence. Marvin looked at his trailer and felt as though it might as well be as distant as the stars, orbiting a minor moon at the far reaches of his life.

“Your sunflowers look bad, man,” said Bernie. “You should pull them.”

Marvin shook his head.

“Maybe you should get some perennials.”

“Who are you?” asked Marvin.

In one big effort, Bernie smoked the remainder of the cigarette down and tossed the butt out the window. He exhaled through his mouth and looked at Marvin. “Alright,” he said, and flashed the headlights once. Marvin’s trailer lit up. Then it went black again—blacker than before. Marvin looked in the side-mirror, but the car didn’t move. No one got out.

Bernie took out another cigarette and held it in his hand, against the wheel, but didn’t light it. He slumped against the seat as if he had no plans of leaving. “He was an idiot, man.” Bernie’s voice was relaxed, but he jiggled the cigarette against the wheel. “He’d just start taking shit from whoever’s house we were at. He said it was to show them we could. He couldn’t help himself.” They were drug dealers, then. Or something. It didn’t matter, a voice in Marvin’s head told him. He didn’t need to know. He stared, perplexed, at his hands curled up like sleeping animals in his lap.

“He kicked this guy’s dog to death once,” Bernie went on. “He could have shot it, but he was just acting crazy, and it tore up his leg. He had to get a rabies shot. He was always doing things that didn’t make sense. I can’t even tell you all the times.” He stuck the unlit cigarette in his shirt pocket. Marvin thought about bolting out the door, running.

Bernie stared up through the windshield. “What do you think of them things up there?”

“The stars?” Marvin fought a sudden urge to laugh.

“What’s been going on up there lately?” Bernie gestured loosely at the expanse of the entire sky. “Is it expanding or contracting?”

“It’s not contracting,” Marvin said.

Bernie looked at him then with sincere hatred. And just as suddenly, he broke into a spiteful smile. “It’s not contracting,” he said in a high, prissy voice. Then his arm flashed out. He grabbed Marvin’s face and tilted his jaw roughly, as if he were a doll. Marvin fought him off and Bernie laughed. “In the dark, man, you look like something else entirely.” Bernie scooted back across the seat. “Better watch out.” He laughed again. Bernie opened the door and got out. Through the window, he said, “You tell that woman, when she gets out of the hospital, that Skyler moved on. He went back to Guatemala. Took that stinky lizard with him.” In the rearview, Marvin watched him walk to the road and get in the car. The car started. Its lights shot two long beams that, in the dark, seemed to go on for miles. Marvin noticed one of the beams angled up slightly. There was an alignment problem. The car slid away.

Marvin sat in Skyler’s truck, unable to move. His body had gone away and it took some time for the particles to regroup. Light was shooting out of a black hole somewhere, and no one knew why. The CB squawked—just static, but underneath he thought he heard the rhythm of a human voice. It was repeating something. A name. He picked up the CB. “Hello?” He thought he should say his own name, but he couldn’t get the words out, so he only said, “Hello?” once more, and waited. Static—and only static, this time. Marvin got out of the truck and went to his car. He opened the door and stood there a moment, thinking. He closed the door.

In his trailer, he picked up his phone and dialed his mom’s number, thinking about the car that had pulled into her turn-off last night. The phone rang only twice before she picked up.

They made plans for lunch. She sounded excited. “I’m gonna dress up a little,” she said. “You should, too. Just put on something nice and we’ll go to that vegetarian place.”

“What vegetarian place?”

“There is one. You need to get out of that tin can more often.”

He laughed, and a bead of sweat ran down his face.

After hanging up, he got a flashlight and went back to Skyler’s truck. The smoke from Bernie’s cigarette lingered, pooling in the gauges. Marvin shone the light under the seats. He opened the glove box. It had been cleaned out. He checked the driver’s side dash for the VIN and found the little metal plate, its numbers scraped off. He looked under the seats again. Then he turned off the flashlight and stood in the darkness by the truck. The truck still put out a little heat.

*

The next morning, Marvin dressed before the mirror in his bedroom. A wind had come up in the night and the day was cool and cloudless. Marvin’s thoughts seemed rooted in a far-off place, slithering across a dark, syrupy lake over weeks or years, and at last his hand would reach up and find his shirt button. He’d dressed, somehow, in a slim jacket—plum, with black pinstripes—with a blue button-up beneath, and jeans. He’d found the jacket a few years ago in a boutique in Denver. No one had known him there. It’d been easy. Standing before his mirror now, he wound his hair in a high bun. Bruises had blossomed on either side of his jaw, where Bernie had grabbed him. Marvin let his hair down and arranged it over his shoulders. It looked best that way, anyway. He turned his head to feel it move against his cheeks. He flexed his jaw. It twinged a little, not bad. Turning his head too fast had made him a little sick. He hadn’t slept.

He opened the top drawer of his dresser and removed his aluminum makeup case. Everything was in its place—his lipsticks, shadows, powders. Brushes. Pencils. Good, soft kohl. Little pots of color. Marvin stood there, frozen. His mind supplied answers, all on its own, to questions that hadn’t even occurred to him yet. And then, he felt an overwhelming numbness pressing against his temples, his lungs, the backs of his knees, spreading through his entire body—he had to move, he had to get going. He shut the case and left it on top of his dresser.

Marvin had to walk past Skyler’s truck on the way to his car. His sunflowers—what was left of them—whispered feebly among themselves. Soon the wind would gather up their petals and fling them into the air. A few would manage to cling to Marvin’s trailer, and when the snow thawed, they’d look like any sort of petals—ordinary leaves.

*

Marvin drove directly to the little blue house. He didn’t bother going inside, though he still had the key. He was sure there was nothing to be found in there. In the yard, he cut two peonies with a pocket-knife. Their moisture ran down his hand. He hesitated, then cut two more.

No one was home at Peggy’s. He slid the key under the door, and took the two flowers he’d cut for Peggy back to his car. His mom would put all four of them in the glass vase on her table. Then they’d go to lunch.

The culvert was all contrast, light and dark—an ink drawing—the opposite end a raw, white moon. A terrible thought struck Marvin, standing there, looking into the black at the bottom of the culvert. He got a flashlight from his glove box and walked to the lip of it. The flashlight’s beam skittered along the bottom of the culvert, revealing only clumps of earth and cow dung. Marvin swept the light over the corrugated walls—concentric circles flowing out like a ribcage—and recalled the image of cattle stepping, one by one, out of the darkness of its center and into the light at the other side, the new pasture like a new world and they, new animals.

*

Peggy wondered if Marvin knew anyone who was looking for a rental now that her mom’s old place was officially vacant. They were drinking coffee in her living room a few days later, with her ex-husband, who had taken down the clock and was holding it at various points along the wall. He was buoyant and purposeful today and Marvin liked him a great deal less than he had the first time they’d met. Marvin said he didn’t know of anybody.

According to Peggy, every trace of Skyler’s existence had been wiped from the house, except for the iguana’s empty terrarium—the iguana gone, too. Peggy hadn’t seen her mother’s old cat around and hoped Skyler hadn’t taken her with him or killed her for sport, or god knows what. Then again, she had no reason to suspect he’d do something like that. It was just that he’d disappeared, and left the carpets unshampooed and the toilet clogged. “Guess he left a trace or two of himself,” said her ex, speaking around the nail he held between his teeth. He’d climbed on a chair facing the wall. Now he positioned the nail, raised a hammer. He wasn’t a big man. But when he drove the nail into the wall, Marvin felt the violence of it in his sternum. The house murmured with the sounds of quivering glassware for three seconds after each blow.

“I don’t think an iguana would last long out here if he turned it loose,” said Peggy, once it was quiet. “He’d find his way to the highway, and—blammo. That’d be the end of him.”

Her ex fitted the clock on the wall and stepped down from the chair to look at it. “Who the hell owns a reptile?” he said. Then he crossed the room and sat next to Peggy on the couch and observed the clock from there. He seemed pleased. He leaned back and gazed at it through half-closed eyes.

“Did he leave his instruments?” Marvin asked. “He said he had some instruments in the shed.”

“What instruments?” asked Peggy.

“I don’t know exactly.”

“What Peggy’s interested in is instruments of torture,” said her ex.

“Was he a musician?” Peggy asked.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s amazing what you learn about people,” she said. “After the fact.”

“Nothing they do can surprise me,” said her ex.

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Epilogue

Before they found the house by the water tower, and before the long hungry summer before that, the two dogs lived in a yard some thirty miles away, along a crooked road known for vehicle fatalities. The old dog arrived first. Three children lived in the house, and when they woke to him howling under the clothesline, they begged their mother to let him stay. A few months later, one of the girls came home with a puppy in her arms. She presented the pup to the old dog—who sniffed the cold little bundle with a snarl in his throat—and carried her inside, where the pup remained through the rest of the winter. In the spring, the pup was left outside with the old dog. The two dogs hunted for food with the pack that roamed the rangeland, although they were barely welcome among these wilder dogs, and always hungry. They survived on scraps and leftovers and sinew and bones.

When the woman or one of her children came out, the dogs wagged their tails but did not get up from the holes they carved for themselves against the fence. The wild dogs, on the other hand, preferred the prairie. They fought the coyotes in the hills. The houses and the people who lived in them offered no shelter or comfort—only, occasionally, bits of food. The wild dogs never doubted their right to the land. They smelled blood in the dirt and dug at it. They slept in the dirt. The dogs had been here, in this place, as long as the people had. They had come with the first people, a long time ago.

The house emptied of children. The woman who lived there rarely came out, and the dogs forgot about her. The first warm day of spring, many years later, they left the yard for good. Without meaning to, they had become wild.

*

The dogs spent the summer wandering the cedar hills for game. The rabbits were too quick for them. Once, they spooked up an elk calf, but its mother came charging down the draw, bellowing, and scattered them. A few days after that, they made themselves sick picking at a dead cow that had been deposited at the base of the hills by a rancher—poisoned from larkspur or death camas. They recovered along the river, in the shelter of thick brush, and headed east along the highway, where they lived off roadkill and became expert at dodging cars. It grew hotter, and they slept during the day and spent nights along the road, sniffing out dead animals and waste thrown from car windows.

They reached a town. They found the house by the water tower.

The woman there was tall, and called to them.

*

The dogs could remember the minute stirrings of other dirt beneath their feet, the taste of dead things, the lights of cars shooting past, the heaviness in their guts and the lightness of their bodies. But when they dozed under the porch, when they skittered up the steps to greet the tall woman, when they romped in the yard on cold days, they became, more and more, the dogs who lived there.

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Thanks for reading! “Dogs of an Unknown Origin” and its companion, “Double Gold,” belong to my linked story collection, The Flowers Killings.

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