Kent Viramontes Hale
Never wanted one in the first place but I had a good dog. Found him after a few days of continuous rain, a tiny shivering thing of matted fur all curled up and whimpering under a pile of rotting branches. More mud than dog. I would’ve missed him if it wasn’t for those pitiful sounds he was making. At the time, and maybe this was what kept me from leaving him, I couldn’t help but think the earth itself had retched him up.
He was a wire-haired terrier of paranoid, distrustful temperament. I named him Spit because of the way saliva strung out from his snout and dripped. He had this tic that made his teeth click together every two seconds or so. It never stopped. He looked like he was forever snarling, angry at some invisible thing.
After I’d had Spit for a while, he calmed down a bit. He’d let me pick him up and shove my face into his belly. I was never one to show much affection, but I grew to like doing that. His smell calmed me. He smelled like he’d already died. Didn’t bother me, though. Most of where I lived was in some semblance of decay. He was a breathing part of it, like me.
Spit only ever took to me and, as he aged, he developed the bad habit of snapping at other people, my wife included. She tolerated him but kept her distance after it was clear he wasn’t going to get used to her. He was in my life before she was. I wasn’t going to get rid of him because of a few scratches and nips.
We lived in my parents’ old home, the one I grew up in. I was born on the living room floor. It was a small two-bedroom place. Multiple generations had passed through that home. Nobody earned enough in their lifetime to make any big changes, or to leave the place behind. It sat on a hundred acres of land that proved to be worthless. My parents died and I took over. By the time I got there, the rooms were heavy. The hardwood was grooved and stained and slightly off-kilter in places. Some windows were stuck shut, frames splitting with bloat. Pipes groaned always. Porch was tilted and rotting. Little bugs of all pestilent sorts darted from every corner. Over time, the ceilings seemed to lower.
My wife moved in quick, like she’d always been there and I hadn’t noticed. Maybe it was the other way around. We were happy at first and we never grew to hate each other outright.
In his old age, Spit drew blood a handful of times. Those people deserved it. They ignored his warning signs, the way he’d shiver and back up, eyes blind with cataracts, ears deaf and twitching, teeth bared in an aimless snarl. Some people must’ve found it endearing how pitiful he looked, and when they reached out he growled and nipped. He was too small to do any real harm, but folks were always stunned.
Spit’s dulled senses made him reckless. Once, he got sprayed by a kit skunk. He hadn’t known what he was nose to nose with in the dark. I called for him. I always called his name to get him back home. Don’t know why. He couldn’t hear a thing. I called on him, then went out and found him with a flashlight. There he was in the glow, sniffing that skunk like it was his kin. I jumped toward them and came away reeking worse than the dog. I knew it was only a matter of time before he went nose to nose with something violent and hungry without knowing it. I stopped taking him outside at night after that.
Once, Spit bit a little girl of no more than five years old on the hand. I was cautious with Spit around kids. They were the worst about treating him right. Didn’t know any better. Only reason she got close to Spit was because I was in an argument with her daddy over something I can’t remember. His name was Gene. We’d lingered on the past for too long and an old feud had boiled to the surface. We’d known each other since we were kids, so there was enough bad blood between us for some of it to spill. Neither of us had left town. Maybe for a few months, the odd year chasing something or someone, but we never really left. After enough time in the same place those people who stay, who tell themselves they chose to stay, become more important to those others who stuck around for no purpose other than watching the old and birthing the young. They become just as much a part of that place as the homes and the hills and the weather. You grow to know everything about those sorts of people, even if you don’t care if they’re alive or dead.
I was about ready to grab Gene by the throat when a horrible screech shot out of his little girl’s mouth. I turned around and saw her bawling with her bleeding hand held high in the air and Spit scurrying from the porch and off toward a thicket of dried underbrush. Gene stomped after him, looking to smash his frightened little body. I pushed him off balance and was on top of him before he could. The only reason I didn’t start swinging was because the little girl was there. She didn’t need to see that. Her mom didn’t need to hear about it.
My wife came out through the back of the house shouting for me to get off of him. My fist wasn’t raised, just had my hands on his chest. I felt his chest rising and falling. He came to his senses, pushed me off, and ran over to tend to his daughter. He kept apologizing to her and putting his hands on her face to wipe the tears and snot away. The size of his hands in comparison to her head made the girl look more fragile than she was.
My wife took the girl inside and cleaned her hand up. The wound wasn’t that bad. It didn’t need stitches or nothing. She ripped one of my good undershirts into strips and bandaged up the girl. I didn’t say anything about her ruining one of my shirts. It wasn’t an argument worth having.
I apologized to Gene, said I didn’t mean anything by it, said Spit didn’t know what he did. Gene wasn’t mad. He even said sorry. He was sorry about going after Spit. I don’t know what came over me, he said. And then after a moment, My little girl, you know? I said I did know, but at the time, with no child of my own, I guess there was no way I could have.
His daughter didn’t come back to the house after that. He would, though. He would come by now and again to drink and complain about life. I gave him beer without asking for anything in return. In my mind, that made us even. I kept Spit locked in the bedroom whenever he was over.
One day while we were sitting on the back porch and watching clouds of gnats form and disperse out over the dead grass, he brought up his daughter again. She’s got a little scar on her hand from that dog of yours, right between her thumb and forefinger, in that meaty part, he said, pointing to the spot on his hand to show me what he was talking about. It’s in the shape of a teardrop, he said.
She loves it, he said.
It was summer when my wife came into the kitchen with her hands on her stomach. I was eating at the table. She looked me in the eye in a way that stiffened my back and sat me up in my chair. I thought we were about to get into it, about to fight. Then she told me she was pregnant and smiled wide.
I choked down some gristle and moved my mouth into something like a smile before the meat got stuck in my throat. For anybody looking at me, including my wife, it would’ve been difficult to tell whether I was laughing or crying out. In that moment, I was startled more than anything. A strange, intense feeling throbbed in my head. It didn’t change to happiness like it should’ve, like I thought it should’ve. When I was a child I got caught peeping on a neighbor. For some reason that’s all I could think of: the thrill of seeing that woman’s nakedness cut short by her eyes catching mine, her hands covering her body, her calm face rearranging into a look of disgust.
My wife patted me on the back until I coughed something back into my mouth. I spit it into a napkin and looked at it. A grey glob of fat and tendon. I tossed it to the ground. Spit gobbled it up with his teeth clacking. His nose still worked right. He could clock a scrap of meat from the other side of the house.
You okay? my wife asked.
I wasn’t talking about that.
My wife’s hands were cradled over her stomach again. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. A collection of both of us under her hands, something that would grow and grow. She looked exactly the same. From everything I had heard, I thought she should’ve been glowing.
Later that night, the heat wouldn’t relent. You couldn’t open the windows. The bugs would come flooding in through the tattered screens if you did. The humidity. Everything in the house dripped, like the rooms were sweating and alive.
We were getting ready for bed and talking about things to come.
We’ll be able to make it work. You think about things too much. You work yourself up. You make yourself sick when things don’t line up like you expect them to. You only see the bad things, my wife said.
And she was right. I felt sick to my stomach. I tried not to show it but she could tell. There wasn’t much use trying to fool her.
She asked me what I wanted, what I pictured. I don’t know, I said, and then after a silence long enough for her to start walking away I said, I want a small blue house out on a hill. Nothing too big. A well-kept place with a terraced garden. Old oaks everywhere. I want it to be quiet.
I think I was telling the truth. In my mind, our future was far off in time and distance, and it was happy. It was just the two of us. I hadn’t really thought about it up until that point, but that’s how I saw it. Although, when I closed my eyes and tried to imagine a home and a life, my wife’s face shifted into something distorted and unrecognizable. With the baby on the way, it felt like our future had already happened. Our home, its creaking foundation and molding walls, didn’t look anything like where I wanted to be when all my time was used up.
It’s quiet here too, she said.
Not to me. I’ve got a memory in every corner. I can almost hear my parents’ voices, I said.
I woke up in the middle of the night with a start. I don’t remember what I was dreaming about but I felt anxious. I reached across the bed and put my hand on my wife’s belly. It was soft and possessed of a gentle heat. If I closed my eyes and held my breath, I swore I felt something moving under my palm, trembling, writhing.
Unable to sleep, I thought of the ghost stories my mom used to tell me. She said there was a spirit in the bedroom where she and my dad slept. Only they could be in there or else it would jump inside me and control my body and make me do awful things. It would take my legs and run me into the woods until I was lost and no one could find me. I’d be paralyzed, trapped behind my eyes and sprinting faster than I ever thought I could, she said, my legs would burn terribly and I’d be chomping my tongue into pulp and digging my nails into my belly until it ruptured. I’d feel the pain of it all but I wouldn’t be able to stop. Then the sun would rise and the ghost would rip itself from my body and leave me lost and afraid. With that story rattling around in my head, I stopped crawling into their bed when I was scared. But I was a child. I didn’t listen to my mom. I would go into their room and stand at the edge of their bed in silence, watching the shapes of their bodies under the covers throb with breath. I was too afraid to say anything because I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there.
My wife and I slept in that same room.
I’d been staring at the ceiling for too long. The dark shapes of furniture hugging the walls became menacing, almost human. I touched my face. I rammed my fingers into my eyes until they hurt. My pillow smelled of sweat. A sourness sat in my belly and ran up my throat.
I didn’t know my wife was still awake until she touched my arm and asked with a whisper if I wanted a girl or a boy.
Spit’s sputtering snores. His rancid smell.
I sat up and pushed him off before my wife noticed. If she saw him in our bed, she’d want me to throw him outside. With all my thoughts knotted up, I didn’t want to do that. Spit was a reeking comfort. Despite being unable to make sense of much besides what he smelled, he always knew when I wasn’t feeling right. He was the only one that did.
He scurried off into the corner of the room. I followed him and sat down. I placed my hand on his body and felt the labor of his breathing, the twitch of his jaw, the oil of his pelt. Then I walked him into the study across the hall and pushed him inside. He scratched at the door for a while before tiring himself out.
The study had been my childhood room. My dad took it back when I moved out. He filled it with shelves and a huge, heavy desk. He wasn’t protective of the room, but when he was in there he preferred to be alone. When I came home to visit, I would press my ear to the door and listen. He was always so quiet. After I had the house to myself, I didn’t go in there much. It didn’t feel right. Every once in a while, I put my ear to the door. I don’t know what I wanted to hear.
We planned to take all the furniture out and turn the room into a nursery for when the kid came. I didn’t like the idea at first. Paint the walls a different color and it will feel different, my wife said. That room had been painted so many different colors already, a different shade for every childhood spent in it. The walls were chipped and bubbling with shoddy coats. That room was the start of something slow and painful. It doomed people to grow old and die in a bed across the hall. I didn’t want that for my kid. But there were no other options. There wasn’t much room in that house.
Those acres were naked flatlands and hidden ditches gray from interstate runoff. Spit ran out ahead of us in a zig-zag pattern and lifted his leg to the same stones he’d doused ever since I’d found him. He was out of sight running through a ditch when my wife brought up what I already knew but didn’t want to talk about. We had to get rid of him. There was no telling what he would do if he got near a baby. Wasn’t his fault. It was just something we had to deal with. I said I could kill him right then and there.
Don’t be like that, my wife said.
Dog’s too dumb to know he’s still alive, I said, don’t think he’ll ever die unless we do something about it.
Stop it. You’d miss him worse than you’d miss me.
I woke up to Spit barking in the hall, which was unusual. If he was anything, he was a quiet dog. I could see him outside the study. He was yipping and snarling at the door like he’d chased a rabbit in there and couldn’t get to it. His hindquarters were stuck up in the air and his snout was cocked to the side and gnashing under the door, trying to tear apart whatever was on the other side. I tried to quiet him down. I bent down and cupped my hands around the flanks of his body. He whipped around faster than I thought he could and caught me on the forearm with his bared teeth. I reeled away and kicked him across the hall. He yelped and scurried off into the darkness. I’d never struck him before and he’d never bit me. I went into the bathroom and turned the light on. He’d gotten me good. I wrapped a towel around my arm to stop the blood from running down and dripping from my fingertips. By the time I put alcohol on the wound, he was back out in the hall barking away again.
Since I didn’t know what else to do to make him stop, I tore down the hall and opened the door. There was nothing there. With the door out of the way, Spit stopped barking. He just sat there, blind eyes locked onto some imperceptible form. One of the eeriest things I’d ever seen. I nudged him a bit with my foot, said his name, tried to get him to go in. He wouldn’t pass the door jamb, just backed up on his hindlegs or skittered around me with his paws clicking on the hardwood.
When I went back into the bedroom my wife was sitting up in bed with her arms wrapped around her body. The sight of her frightened me worse than Spit. She asked if everything was okay. I couldn’t speak. I knew it was my wife, but for an instant all I could see was the shape of my mother, and all I could hear was my mother’s voice telling me to get out of the room.
The sun beating down. It was very hot. I was sitting out on the porch with my dad’s old model 70 in my hands. It was the only gun he or I ever owned. I kept it for those maimed animals that seemed to bubble up from the asphalt of the interstate. People drove fast. They usually killed whatever they hit on the spot, but not always. There were those creatures that dragged themselves away from the road and out onto my land to suffer and die.
I’d be walking around with Spit and he’d find a deer or a coyote or a rabbit or a raccoon or a hog or whatever else was struggling through its final breaths. He’d sniff at them and sometimes lick their wounds. They were usually in too bad of shape to lash out at him, and if they weren’t, Spit seemed to know. He’d sit a few feet away and let them lurch and flail with their shattered limbs. He’d stay there and keep them company while I walked back to the house, picked up the rifle, walked back, chambered a round and put them out of their misery. That was a small mercy I didn’t mind providing.
On that scorching day, I aimed the rifle at Spit. I kept the sights on him as he wandered around sniffing and pissing. To the right, left, back again, up ever so slightly as he ran off into the distance, and then gradually back down as he trotted toward me. I kept my finger off the trigger until he was right in front of me. I added some pressure and then let go. I leaned the rifle on the steps beside me and patted him on the head. He just sat there, drooling and staring at me with blind eyes of milky white.
Gene came over and we talked and we drank. Everything from my dad’s study sat in the driveway ready for him to take: white oak bookshelves, dark mahogany desk with matching chair, brown lounge chair of cracking leather with decorative brass studs, a dozen cardboard boxes filled with books and framed pictures, a rotting Turkish rug of faded warm colors, molding drapes. I told him he could have whatever he wanted as long as he took all of it off my hands.
I asked him about his little girl. He said she was doing well.
She actually wants summer break to be over, he said. She wants to go back to school. Never heard of anything like that.
She’s smarter than you’ll ever be.
Not too hard to be that, he said. Then after a while he said, She’ll be good to have around when yours comes. She’s already real maternal. She watches over the chickens better than any grown person ever could. Don’t have to ask her to anymore. She just does it. As soon as that dog of yours kicks it Linda will be fine with her coming over here to help Maria out.
That would be a great help, I said.
I didn’t tell him I’d gotten home in the early morning after a night of drinking and heard my wife crying softly with short breaths—a faint weeping I wasn’t used to. It wasn’t like those tears of frustration, or of anger, or tears for tears’ sake when everything was too much.
The sound terrified me. My toolbelt was hung on a coat rack by the front door and I grabbed a hammer off it. I thought somebody might be in there with her hurting her. When I got in the bedroom, I saw her huddled up by the headboard with her arms clutched around her knees, and Spit on the floor salivating and ripping at the sheets he’d pulled off the bed. He spun around in them and licked and bit away at the darkest blood I’d ever seen. Without thinking about it much, I grabbed the rifle from under the bed. Then I threw the sheets over Spit, bundled him up under my free arm, and took him outside.
After that, we kept the study closed even though it was empty. My wife stopped calling it the nursery. I did too.
I tried to sell the house. A few people showed some interest, but they never called us back after they visited the place. Folks out there weren’t interested in fixer-uppers. The ones who had enough money to tear places down and start from scratch bought homes on the south side of the county where there were schools and restaurants. We needed some kind of change, something to make things feel different. So we painted the house blue.
Kent Viramontes Hale is a drummer and Texan based in LA. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from CalArts.