Christopher David DiCicco's work has recently appeared in Nib Magazine, Intellectual Refuge, Sundog Lit., Cease, Cows!, Bohemia Arts & Literary, Gravel Magazine, and Bartleby Snopes—and is forthcoming in The Cossack Review, WhiskeyPaper, Flash Fiction Online, First Stop Fiction, Penduline Press, The Story Shack, HOOT, and Litro Magazine.
My first pup was a junkyard dog Pop brought home from work. “Here you go boy, take this shit, make sure he don't mess the house.” He'd gone to a great length, getting me a junkyard dog. Pop salvaged scrap, located parts for locals—it was nice of him to think of me, to find me what I needed, kind even, to pick the parts, to put it all together. For Pop to salvage me up a pup—it was love, had to be, considering he'd other things to do, to search for, more important things to find, like maybe my mother.
People came by. They'd drive their brokenness over, dying American pickups, gutted German beetles coming down long roads. They'd spin their wheels on loose gravel, gun the mountain driveway, stop at the porch. They'd bang at the torn-to-fuck screen door, ask Pop if he knew where a thing was for their beat-to-shit car, if he'd seen Mom, if she hadn't shown up yet. Pop put his hands in his pockets, wiggle them in old denim, tell them, “Fuck off Jimmy. I ain't at work til I'm at work. Find you're own fucking parts.”
“No need to get angry, Steve, your boy's watching.”
“The fuck if he is. He's seen worse than grease monkey trash collectors having it out over a thing or two. Ain't that right, son?”
And for the most part, Pop found what they needed, made it so they'd fix what was broken. Old rusted junkers running like new. Family four-door sedans, three wheels now four.
Again and again.
What wasn't whole, Pop made it so it was.
Not everything. Somethings Pop couldn't fix, no matter how much he spit, spun the wheels.
Pop's junkyard extended to the backyard. People knew it. If they couldn't afford the county junkyard, they'd knock, backdoor, cheaper alternative—like knocking on the oak of my father's rusty-hinged heart. Mom hated it—couldn't stand stacks of tires, axles mazes, playground mufflers. Spit on cars, scratched hoods, rubbed mud, nothing she did slated her thirst, her anger for having to live with us. She left. Then it really was a junkyard. We really were broken. I remember that, red hair, her yelling like thunder, a storm of broken whiskey bottles popping with glass bangs. Pop's favorite junkers damaged on the outside all because of her. A whole lot of hot noise. I remember. Not her face. Not that.
Pop piss her off, grab an alternator cap for Mr. Wilgin's 88' Deville, a horn for Petey Smith's pregnant girlfriend's Pontiac Grand Am.
A missing headlight.
A broken fender.
Pop mended it. All he could. The day she left, Pop was at the yard, Mom said, “Wyatt, your father is an idiot. Why he never charges these people what he ought to, I'll never understand.” I cried in the kitchen waiting for her to come back, to open my can of SpaghettiO's. Pop found me when he came home from work. Crying. In the kitchen. Standing there in my little boy underwear, the ones covered in green dinosaurs. I was still holding the can of SpaghettiO's.
I am still holding a can of SpaghettiO's.
She never understood, not like me, that what Pop did at work, he did at home, that he had to. When you're good at what you do, you bring it everywhere, you bring it home. I got Pop's smile, what made him tick, understood why he carried springs home in his pocket, gasket caps in his hat. I understood. Mostly after my dog died.
Before my junkyard dog, I'd figured Pop thought only of potatoes. He'd eat them when he'd get home, stand at the sink, peel, not say a word, drop, one, two, into a pot, let the water boil, stare at the steam, not say a word, look at my cans of SpaghettiO's on the shelf, take one down, hold it in his hand, stare, run his finger along the sealed-shut lid, look at me, cry.
“It's all I want” he'd say. “It's all I need, boiled potatoes, you, me—we're all we need. We're all we need.”
He'd eat, sometimes without a fork, bits of potato falling onto him, into his beard. His beard growing. The dark circles under his eyes forming. His hands. He'd never wipe them across his oiled-stained shirt, the pale blue collar covered in dirt, kept clean from what he could. In case. He didn't want her thinking he'd given up.
He didn't want her to come back, leave me, not because of him.
Not again. Not to me. He'd keep himself clean.
That day, when he dropped my pup down, a plop of metal gears onto the floor in front of me, Pop lied. “They didn't want this lying around the transmissions yard—and I sure hell didn't want it. Thought you'd might. Remember about the house. No messes.” After he'd said it, that was that. He'd given me the world on a platter, told me not to crash it into Mars. He'd almost walked away. “You don't like it, get rid of him.” A nervousness, gruff not used to trying, not sure of affection, Pop didn't know if I'd notice, recognize his effort, that he was awake, aware I was there.
If I didn't like the thing, get rid of it? Who was he kidding? I loved it, every part, every piece, my junkyard dog.
He knew. Pop knew. Must have. He turned back to say something else, saw me with my new friend, me smiling a dirt tooth grin. “Thanks Pop. Thanks. He's awesome.”
I wrapped my hands around my pup's thick hard neck, smelled rust, the dirt of the yard, kept holding. I held him all night, thinking I'd everything a boy needed. That, and because I was afraid to let go.
I'd pissed Pop off good, asking stupid questions. “Do you think mom'll like him?” He'd started in on his potatoes, no chance to pour salt, no reason to answer.
I'd eaten a can of SpaghettiO's. Pop told me to. “If you don't eat the whole can, I'll lock you outside.”
Guess it didn't matter as long as I ate the whole can.
Before my pup, I used to ask about her. Too much. “Pop, is she coming back? Do you think she'll like the haircut you gave me? Pop, you think she'll notice I can open my own cans now? She will, won't she?”
Before my junkyard dog, Pop would get mad. “Don't ask stupid questions,” he'd yell smashing his plate, slamming his hand, punching the stove. That last one made it hard to eat for a week, had to rig a propane tank. Didn't really care though.
I fed my junkyard dog what he wanted, needed to eat. That was more than you'd imagine. Pieces of aluminum, tin, sometimes lead if I could find it. That pup, he ate anything I found. All I'd do was pull out the screwdriver and there he was mouth open—and I made sure he ate every bolt, every screw went down the hatch.
That pile of rust, my first pup, he'd left oil all over the house. Couldn't help it. I'd clean it up, hug him tight, roll him around, oil where necessary, leave him tied to an old car, pretend I had to save him, that we were captured or lost. In the backyard, plenty of places to hide, I found what I was looking for—that junkyard dog, he was always where I left him.
Pop reached out to me bringing that mutt home, scrapping him together like that. I should've known, never known a good thing until it was gone. Mom? Pop didn't want another mouth to open cans for. He didn't want another someone to take poor care of, but I'd cried cold all winter, telling him a dog would keep me warm. He'd liked me since I was born; he was a bit broken; he wanted to try; it wasn't hard.
“A good pup make sure I'd eat everyday.”
“Why would a pup help you eat? You haven't ever trained a pup. Don't know shit about raising a young thing. How bout something you can't fuck up?”
I was stubborn, knew a thing. “A pup is hungry like me Pop. If I had a pup, I'd eat whatever was in front of me or else.”
“How do I know you wouldn't go soft? How do I know you wouldn't feed a pup your own food?”
“I wouldn't. Besides if I don't eat what's in front of me, he'll gobble it down. Like mom would. Like she'd do with.” He'd hit me hard. I wasn't wrong. He knew it, wasn't something he could really admit to, not then, with me.
Still, he didn't trust me, liked to believe I wasn't hardened by my mother's leaving, that I was soft. Considering what I did for that dog he was right. Getting me the kind of pup he did, an old junker, was the right decision for a boy who couldn't handle losing anything else, the best thing for a father who could only put the pieces together of somethings, of only what he could.
My pup, my junkyard dog, he was only a month old when he got hit by Mrs. O'Hanlon's pickup.
I tried to save him.
Everyone said, “You're crazy. What's wrong with you?”
Pop understood. “He's fine. What the fuck's wrong with you? You going to let your stuff get smashed? Idiot.”
The neighbor boys, the O'Hanlons, they'd said my dog wasn't a dog at all, just useless junk, bits of cars, old coffee cans, springs.
“That's not true! You're both dumb cause of your mother.”
The O'Hanlons got annoyed. I'd always blame their mother's drinking for their stupidity. This time, they heard enough, let me have it. “Our mom's not as much as a drunk as your own.”
“My mother's not.”
“The hell she's not! Why'd she up and leave you and your dad then?”
“My mother's not a drunk.”
They seemed honestly confused by this. “Whenever our mother leaves, it's cause she's drank everything we hid or because dad's supposed to be in town.”
“Well that's not the fucking case.”
I didn't like the O'Hanlons. I punched the oldest in the face, let my fist crack against the hard part of his jaw, the blood stain my shirt. The O'Hanlons busted my lip, as expected, blood on the yard, pain in our faces. All expected. All part of where I grew up.
My father, my dog, my country blood, they all bled the same, which wasn't unusual for where I'd been raised. All that oil and rust, all over the grass, polluting deep into the earth's core, infecting the drinking water—that blood was dangerous. And I didn't even notice it was mine.
Pop did, and he was pissed, which I get.
The thing about Pop was he could smell blood better than a hound. Any time I'd scratch myself on the old elm, get into a whipping fight with the weeping willows branches—he knew. “Wyatt, come here! What's that on your arm? We're you fighting with switches? Was it the O'Hanlons? Those Irish fucks, they hurt you?”
I'd have to calm him down, hope he didn't notice my rusty shirt.
You don't understand your father until you've become him; by that time most fathers are estranged or dead. Unless you have a bullshit relationship with your kid. A healthy one. The kind where you bring home a golden retriever, talk about your day at work. A good father throws you to the wolves. A good father buys you one.
Which reminds me of how I ended up looking like I'd been mauled.
That July afternoon Pop told me, “Get that goddamn thing out of the house.” He noticed when things weren't given the love they deserved. He noticed my rust-stained shirts. He noticed the way I woke up crying thinking I was still in the kitchen with a can I couldn't open, a mom who wouldn't come when I called. He noticed—like when he got home from work and I wasn't there playing in the abandon cars out back. He noticed—the broken parts of my pup in the street, the blood there, all rust, my blood, all wet. He noticed Mrs. O'Hanlon's scribbled note about rushing me to town. He noticed and drove to the county doctor, slugged in the face when he said he'd have me removed for neglect.
Pop held me the same way I held my first pup. I didn't notice the doc holding his chin, watching us from a safe distance.
Sure that mutt was old parts Pop threw together. Sure. I loved those parts, the tins cans, the wheels. I smiled when I saw the red tin of my pup's Folgers coffee can belly. I whistled when I pulled his Goodwill Tire paws forward and onward with a bit of old rope used as a leash. Sure they were parts for me to play with, parts that made up my dog, the first thing I'd owned and knew would never run away. Sure Pop was one part; I was the other, our family the best we could do. He was the best dog we could take care of. Pop showed me how to fix his injured front paws, patching the rubber; how to mend his wounded hind legs, greasing the rear swollen axles.
Those parts, my first pup, they escaped me on the hill of my mountain driveway. I'd dropped the leash, couldn't keep up. I ran. My speeding mutt, he was well-oiled. On the road, heading to town because she heard her husband might be at the Salvation Army hostel sleeping it off, Mrs. O'Hanlon blared music, wiped away tears, pedaled the gas.
I ran. My pup sped forward onto the road. Mrs. O'Hanlon's truck screeched, slammed hard on its breaks, kicked gravel. My arms stretched. Its Ford fender crushed my pup's Folgers coffee can belly. I ran faster. My hands touched a paw. They grabbed a timing belt tail. My junkyard dog, those parts, those pieces, sailed around me with metal whelps. I felt a fender. And she, Mrs. O'Hanlon, she came to a stop.
My father, Pop, he picked up the pieces, after the doctor's office, after the punch to the chin, the police, the misunderstandings, the standings. He built me a new dog. Christmas he introduced me to Ms. Sara Wells. He bought me a real hound who I named Junk.
He cried, held me, told me, “What did you call him? Say that again.”