“O Father!—chiefly known to me by Thy rod—mortal or immortal, here I die” – H. Melville, Moby Dick
It is my weekend with my boys and on Saturday morning I take them to my mother’s house first thing. She is the last one left on her street to own their house. The others are all rentals. People park on the lawns now. The night before last the wind from a storm without rain had blown the fence down between my mother’s place and her neighbor’s. The streets were carpeted with green leaves and the splatter of caterpillars and robin’s eggs shaken from the canopy and run over on the road. We are out on her deck and I am helping her to assemble one of those covered swings where the seat hangs from cables. The boys are jumping on the slats of the flattened fence like it were a trampoline. They jump up and down and up and down and back and forth and then they are in the neighbor’s yard. I call to them to come but they don’t listen. I walk to them, going around the fence because I do not want to step on it and break the boards. I am grown man and I step heavy. A dog come out of the neighbor’s back door, choking on its own spit in its rage, and it come for me. My boys, all the way across the neighbor’s lawn, whimper in fear. They are not so old, and they step not so heavy, but the dog is come for me and me alone. It is red-haired like a Setter, but long-haired like a Pyrenees, and heavy of step like a Rottweiler too, heavy of step like me. It sets for me and I face it down with my boots, ain’t a dog I can’t man, ain’t ever going to be a dog I can’t man. But it held me at bay too, keeping away from my black-booted kicks, keeping its head at me and it don’t belly-up and submit or run back away. My boys start to cry. My mother come over behind me, she has brought one of the cables from the swing set. The dog, he sets his teeth at me and growls low. I take the cable and swing it with purpose, swing it in the arc of a falling star. I notice, while the cable in my hand is halfway into its own particular ecliptic, that the dog has a bad eye. His right eye is opaled, whited and faintly blued, and if a dog can cry, if that dog can cry, he’ll cry tears as white as milk like the statue of a saint. The first blow catches him and the sound is like a branch cracking and that shuts him up. The second catches him and the sound is the same, but less exciting to me than it is satisfying. With the third I think I might kill him and I mean to but I swing too hard and I miss. The cable hisses through the grass like it is on fire and is briefly sublimated into the earth. When I pulled it back up it leaves a line in the dirt like it has been buried there for years. The neighbor come out and grabs her dog by the collar. I holler at her about how she is to step away now so as to let me finish killing her dog, and that it weren’t going to be different in any way with that dog come on to me like that, with my two small boys and my mother unprotected in the yard. She don’t listen to me, just hooks two of her big-knuckled old-wife fingers in the dog’s collar and pulls him back in with her. She walked away quick, she in her clean blue jeans, collared blue shirt and white sweater, all grey-haired and spectacled and too proud to have to talk to me. I yell at her as she goes. Come on out and let me finish killing your dog, I say, over and over again. Come on out and watch me kill your damn dog. You know that’s how it’s got to be.
She never said a word. She went back into her house and I heard her lock her door.
The neighbors on my mother’s other side have come out, a woman who calls herself Katie who has been a methamphetamine addict and is but five-foot-tall with her arms in the air and at least five-foot wide. I thought that methamphetamines made a person skinny but Katie was almost round. There was not a line on her that was not blurred by fat. She was constructed of rough circles and unfinished ovals. Her dad come out with her, he uses a walker and wears overalls and a red cap and nothing else, not even shoes. His toenails are like lizard scales or coffin nails, rusted, crusted, and like to cut stone. Mom said the two of them drink and fight like an old married couple until late in the night almost every night but she doesn’t want to call the law on them because she is afraid of them. Katie is yelling and her dad is yelling too, both of them yelling at the woman with the dog.
You calling the law, I say?
Hell no, said Katie, unless we call the law on her.
The old man was still yelling. All I could understand of what he said was Goddamn.
That dog of hers, Katie said, that goddamn dog. Bit my Pap one day–she jerked a fat thumb towards him–and him in a walker, and it’s bit kids on the street. She’s supposed to have it put down. She’s had a summons; she’s got a court order against her. She’s in violation, so ain’t no one callin’ the law here and now.
I looked at Katie’s Pap, standing there in his walker. It wasn’t yet nine in the morning and he was sweating hard. The brim of his cap was soaking up sweat from his forehead and turning dark. It’s hard work using a walker. It’s hard work spending a half-an-hour to take a shit. Its hard work being old. No wonder all old people are hateful.
You sure she got an order, I ask, you sure she ain’t up there calling the law?
Katie nodded. She had lit a cigarette and drew long and deep on it and held the smoke inside of her. She looked at me and didn’t blink.
I went to the little shed my mom keeps the lawnmower and garden tools in and I come on out with the jerrycan of gas she has for the mower. I walk over to the corner of the neighbor’s house, two-stories with white wooden siding needing paint, like everyone else’s here, two stories and a aroof, green shingles curled with twenty years of sun and wind and landlords too tight to put up some money for repair and I poured the gas on the side of the house.
You come on out and watch me kill your dog, I shouted. You come out now.
Hell yeah, Katie’s Pap shouts, from his walker. Hell yeah. Burn it. Burn em all.
My mom had taken the boys into her house already. I did not think of that at the time, but I remember it now, how she got them inside and away from the woman, the dog, Katie and her Pap, and me.
The woman and her dog did not come out, or answer me, and I did not put the house to fire. During the week the woman’s landlord, an old Dutch plumber, along with his son who went by the name Theo came and put up the fence. The next day they came and stripped the roof then re-shingled it. My mom said they worked from sunrise to sunset and almost never spoke. They stopped only for lunch. Each ate a sandwich and they passed a thermos of coffee between them while each read from his own Bible. After fifteen minutes they got up without a word and got back up on the roof.
Nothing ever come of the fight with the dog. Not animal control or the law proper. No one come to argue on the woman’s behalf, or to come and take the dog. Nothing. I never saw the woman or her dog again although I kept coming to my mother’s house for years after. They just stayed inside almost all the time. Years later some told me about her, said that she was widowed. She and her husband had farmed but had lost their farm to bad finances and he had killed himself. She was left with nothing. A man from her church, that Dutchman that had come to fix the house and re-shingle the roof, rented that place to her. The church passed the hat to help her with her rent. The old Dutchman just happened to have that house available, but he weren’t doing it for free. Lots of people knew where she come from. No one knew where she might go.
I dreamt three times of the fight with the dog. Every time I did, I dreamt about setting the woman’s house on fire and it burned quick like an abandoned bird’s nest and the fire was taller than the trees on the boulevard on a bright blue day and the air did not move so that it too, could watch the fire. No one came out of the house, not to flee or beg or atone to me proper. I’d wake up triumphant. The first time I dreamt of burning down that house I was alone save for that milk-eyed devil-dog who sat beside me and watched. I wasn’t even mad. It was like he was my dog. The second time I was with my mother and my boys. Look and see, I said, look and see, but my mother took the boys back into her house and they paid me no mind at all. In the last dream my own daddy was there, only a much younger man, younger than I am now, shirtless and holding a beer, drops of condensation from the can dripping onto his hand. His fingers were thick and calloused and dusted with something white from one of his labors and he had the bluest eyes. His hair was so long it was like to make you laugh if you ever knew him. I can’t remember him as he was in life with that long of hair. He looked at me and nodded and that was all.
I was four years old, maybe five. My dad and my uncles had been roofing and were paid in cash and they’d come home from the roofs their skin the deep red of a roofer’s tan and happy with their cash money and with cases of canned beer and fresh packages of smokes and they were flush and fun to be around. My dad lit a cigarette and gave it to me to take a few puffs and I clowned around with it, posing for their laughter and attention and he took pictures of me with a polaroid camera the insurance company paying for the roofing used for pictures. He took the cigarette back and set his beer down and told me to stand in front of him. Put your hands up he said, so I did, and he told me to make a fist, so I did. Now hit me he said, but I wouldn’t. No, he said, you have to hit me. I shook my head. C‘mon, he said, don’t think about it, just do it, but I still wouldn’t do it. He hit me then, the flat of his hands on my shoulders, left-right then right-left. C’mon, he said, fight. I started to cry. Don’t you cry, he said, or I’ll give you a reason to cry, then he hit me ‘crost the top of my tow-head with the flat of his hands just like he’d hit my shoulders before. Hit me hit me hit me he said, loud now, and my uncles quit laughing and held themselves quiet, holding their beers in their laps with both hands and watching me. Man up, my dad shouted, man up and hit me hit me hit me and then I guess I hit him and he roared and my uncles whooped and hollered and he picked me up and hugged me then set me down and said that’s how you do it. You got to work so you got to learn to swing a hammer. You got to fight so you got to learn to use your fists. You keep hitting. You can fight mad or you can fight scared but you got to fight either way. Do it again and again and soon enough, you’ll be good at it and there ain’t anything ever what is ever going to mess with you.