A flashlight comes on in the dark. The light defines the motions of a man’s hand as he rises to his feet. The light lands here and there on empty liquor bottles, a ratty bed roll, chunks of concrete, dirt and sand. He fumbles with his bed roll and his small bag of clothes, grunting and groaning and complaining in the cold morning air. He hides his belongings between two rocks and turns away.
He stumbles out into the rising sun and glares at the sky. He lowers his head and shakes it, rubs his eyes. He’s fifty one, of substantial build, with a long red beard that comes to a point. Layers of filthy clothing hang on his body as if thrown there. He looks a like an old tired Viking. People have told him before that he looks like a Viking, and he likes the thought of it. But here, in the desert, there isn’t much call for Vikings.
It’s still early but the heat of the desert city is already building.
There is a chain link fence with a large hole in it and a sign that says: CITY OF TUCSON WATERSHED, KEEP OUT. The tunnels are dry this time of year and will stay that way until the
monsoon rains arrive in a month. He’ll need a summer home by then. He’s made the mistake of sleeping in the tunnels too late into the season. Waking up in a torrent.
His fingers are thick and dirty as he rolls a cigarette from a yellow pouch. He brings the thin cigarette to his lips and lights it with a book of matches, singeing his red mustache. There’s a clump of burned hair above his lip.
He climbs a rocky embankment to the city road, walks south past some apartment buildings. A yellow taxi comes flying along and nearly hits him. Mike gives him the finger as the taxi speeds away.
As he walks along he laughs to himself.
It’s Thursday. Every Thursday he goes to see Mel’s dogs. Mel owns Mel’s Grocery and Mel’s Laundry. Mel lives above the grocery and out back he keeps two Rottweilers, one male and one female, in cages. Mel never bothered to name the dogs, so Mike named the female She. He didn’t name the male. The male is just a big dumb empty head. But She is smart. Mike likes to play with her in the vacant lot behind the old Sears building. Just last week they were playing ball. They huddled up.
“Ok, She,” he said, “go out ten yards, make a left. I’ll throw you the ball.” She looked at him understandingly. “Got it? Ok, hut, hut…”
She sprinted fifteen yards, turned to her left.
“No, no, no,” he called, waving her back. They huddled again. She looked at him. “Now,” he said, “I said ten, didn’t I? Go ten yards, cut left. Ok? Break!”
This time she got it right. He threw the tennis ball. She caught it gracefully.
Once he tried this with the male. Not only had he failed to master any running routes, but he’d eaten the ball.
Mel never plays with the dogs. They fester in their cages, dirty, with nothing but the cement to sit on, their own shit piled up, and hardly any shade, and their water full of dirt. Mel sometimes gives Mike old bread and throwaway items from his grocery, and so Mel isn’t all bad, but the way he treats those dogs is no good. They need to run once in a while, animals need to run and to feel free once in a while or they just go crazy, or they get so depressed they might as well be dead. Some people just don’t understand this. Or they don’t care.
He approaches the cage and only the male stands up. It walks with its big dumb head over to the fence. His heart jumps. She lays on the concrete, with two trickles of blood dried on her nostrils. Flies.
He opens the cage and goes in and bends over her. He kneels down and looks. The male, separated by a fence, stands and stares.
He thinks of his father-in-law, Stan, dead at sixty, the only real friend he ever had. He remembers looking at him lying in the coffin, his hair-lip twisted up in death. He was buried in the Berryfield Cemetery. He goes there every year on the anniversary of his death and pours a beer into the dirt and sits for a few minutes.
He stands up and walks out of the cage and around to the front door of Mel’s store. He goes inside the little old fashioned grocery.
“Mel,” he says. Mel stands behind the cash register reading the daily newspaper. He’s sixty-two years old, bald. A television is on with the volume very low.
“Mike,” Mel says.
“She’s dead,” Mike says.
“Yes,” Mel says. “Yesterday. I was going to tell you when I saw you.”
“You saw me yesterday,” Mike says.
“I forgot,” Mel says.
“You’re just going to leave her there?” Mike says.
“I told the Benson kid to bury her,” Mel says. “After he gets out of school today he’ll take care of it.”
“How’d it happen?” Mike says.
“I’ll bury her,” Mike says.
“Let me give you something,” Mel says, digging into his till for dollars.
Mike waves off the money.
He walks back. At the cage he stands and looks at the male. The male stands there and he looks sad but Mike doesn’t think the beast has the ability to feel sadness or happiness. And then Mike feels very sorry for the male and bends down and tries to stroke its big dumb head. The dog bends its head lower and lets out a small pitiful noise. Then he snaps at Mike’s fingers, narrowly missing.
Mike picks up She in his arms. She is heavy and stiff and it feels strange having her there, the weight of her. He never thought to pick her up when she was living, doubts she would have allowed it. He carries her nine blocks to a place down by one of the dry washes. People stare at him, but people always stare at him. Along the side of the dry wash, near a favorite camp site, he lays her down. Then he sits down beside her to rest.
In his mind his father-in-law is standing there, looking at him, smiling with that cleft lip. Old Stan. Mike married Stan’s only daughter. Her name was Punk.
“Punk?” Mike said when he met her.
“Watch how you say that,” Punk said.
This was before Vietnam. Before he was caught, and beaten, and stuffed for years in the dark cell. Before he was rescued and then thrown to the dogs of his own country.
He and Punk fell in love, had one child. Meghan. They still live across town. Punk hasn’t allowed him to see Meghan, but the little girl knows of him. Last Christmas he called her. There was a church over on 22nd Street where you could go and sleep and get a hot meal. They also had a telephone. Meghan told him she missed him and wanted to come and live with him. She was five.
“You can’t come live with me,” he told her.
“Why not, daddy?”
“You wouldn’t like it here.”
“If you’re there I’d like it,” she said.
He holds no hard feelings against Punk. He understands. He is too much like her father Stan. Neither could ever quite fit with the world.
Every chance they got, Stan and Mike would slip off and go fishing.
“How much work you got today?” Stan would say. Mike would check his list to see how many water heaters he was supposed to go repair.
“No emergencies,” Mike would reply.
“Let’s go fishing,” Stan would say, with that funny way of talking because of the hare lip: “Ess go fwishin!” And off they’d go. This was back in Jersey. They had a 32-foot boat. They would go to the liquor store to get the “bait,” and then down to the ocean front.
One day they were out on the water. It was calm and not too cold and old Stan just lay back and went to sleep. That was fine with Mike, he just sat there and rolled with the swells. Well, pretty soon Mike got sleepy too, and they were both asleep.
Mike woke up to the deep anguished cry of a large horn blasting from heaven. Stan was already awake, working his fool arm off on the outboard motor, yank yank yank, like some kind of madman in a yo-yo nightmare. Above the frantic image of Stan loomed the biggest, blackest tanker ship Mike had ever seen. It was an unloaded oil tanker, headed straight for them. Mike looked up at the people on the railing of the tanker. It seemed a mile high. They looked like little toy army men with movable arms.
Mike and Stan made it out of the way, barely.
They had had some good times.
He opens his eyes and looks at She lying there. Then he crawls over to where the ground is softer and begins digging with his hands.
By the time he’s through digging the hole his face is shining with sweat. He stands up and gathers She into his arms again. The flies are crazy around her eyes. He sets her down gently into the shallow grave. Then he gets down on his knees again and begins pushing the dirt over her. He pours the dirt on top of her, stopping to spit as the dust rises into his mouth. The look of the dead dog makes him sick to his stomach. She finally disappears. He pats the dirt. He sits there and stares at the mound of dirt until the sunlight begins to fail.
When it gets dark he gets up and makes a small fire. The fire lights easy. It hasn’t rained in over a hundred days. Mike stares into the fire. What he sees is a fire on the edge of a cliff above choppy water. He strokes his long red beard and thinks about the Vikings. He thinks about the dead they left in the water and the graves they left on tiny deserted islands. He thinks about those big wooden ships with the carved dragons rearing in front, cutting through the cold fog of the north seas.
Mather Schneider is a 43 year old cab driver living in Tucson. His work has appeared in the small press for 20 years. He has two full length books available on Amazon and another full length on the way this summer.