A native of the Bronx, N. Marc Mullin drove a taxi and spent years as a sheet metal worker before he became an attorney specializing in civil rights and employment law. His short stories have been published in Storyscape Journal, Hawai’i Pacific Review and are forthcoming in the Willow Review. He published as a finalist in the Middlesex University (UK) international short story contest and he has published nonfiction, including an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times.
I never liked dogs, Dear Sponsor-to-be, but married a woman with two German shepherds. I’m told sexual behavior is supposed to be a topic at this Step, so let me add our sex life was nothing to write home about. Not that I fault her, given my leanings in a porno direction and her being raised Ukrainian Orthodox. Over our bureau hung enough icons—flat-faced and golden—to fill a Kiev church. Those guys staring down didn’t help in bed. That said, I’m truly sorry I turned to women I met driving my cab, and regret I took my fill of crank, smack, bennies, poppers, and Jack Daniel’s.
Before my last sponsor, Richard, quit me, he said that I’d failed on Steps 4—“Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself”—and 5—“Admit to yourself and to another human being the exact nature of your wrongs.” All right, he actually said I was a hopeless fuck, and he fell off the wagon to the point of requiring hospitalization. The problem was we were two vets talking Khe Sanh, incoming mortar shells, P-38 can openers, my exploded eardrum, and the shrapnel in Rich’s legs. When someday I find you, Dear Dream Sponsor, you’ll be that “other human being,” a poet maybe or a doctor, and we sure as hell won’t talk ourselves into the land of ’Nam. We’ll go out for cigarettes and coffee, and I’ll read you these pages, a true Alcoholics Anonymous “inventory” that starts with “flaws” and “assets” as revealed, for starters, by the death of my marriage six years ago, around the time Nixon quit, waving V signs at a helicopter. I’m not sure how conveying such information helps cure addiction, but I know that I must take this process on faith. Faith, Richard said, is exactly what’s lacking in me.
The rent got steep in our Hell’s Kitchen walk-up as the artsy types moved in, so I found us a two-story apartment in a row house in Sunset Park, not far from my folks in Bay Ridge. When I say “folks,” I’m lying, because the warmth of that word suggests they had not thrown me out of the house and ordered me to stay away from them and my brother. In fact, my father, a WWII vet who brushed his teeth with soap, fired his NYPD service weapon into the living room floor to emphasize this point. Despite all that, I did hope that if I moved closer to my parents, emotional distance between us might shrink as well. Put that in the inventory—unrealistic expectations.
The new place had a snatch of grass out back, and I thought this would be excellent for our Kelly, age four with hair the color of sweet potato. Chubby like my wife, my girl loved the dogs, especially mighty Razz, father of Moo—a bony thing who kept close to the ground like an alligator. Geena brought them to our marriage, but let Kelly call them those strange names.
And strange they were. Many times Razz mounted and pumped on his son, and I explained away that behavior to Kelly, saying Moo was sick and Razz was pushing him to the hospital. And once, when Moo fought back, Razz bit his face open. Kelly tended that wound like a sweet nurse, singing the Sesame Street theme song into Moo’s ear while rubbing antibiotic cream gently along his stitches. If my girl could find the good in these dogs, why couldn’t I? I will add to my inventory a basic of lack of regard for the pet preferences of my child and the woman I married.
Before we moved in, I sanded floors, steamed off wallpaper, stained, and painted. I ran a dancing-dinosaur border around Kelly’s room. But Geena—really “Djena” in Ukrainian—didn’t appreciate my work. Again, I can’t blame her. All I got for my typically half-assed and incompetent efforts were floorboards that gave us splinters and plaster walls with moon craters—my spackle dried and fell out in brain-shaped lumps.
The neighborhood, in the soot and shadow of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, had its problems. Gangs would smash car windows to drum up work for local repair shops. I paid off the man I thought was their leader, Potash, nicknamed, I believe, after nearby Potash Bay because his breath stank like that inlet. An Albanian guy, he seemed to live on a blue plastic milk crate outside the bodega down the block from our place. Twenty bucks, I gave him. A couple days later, I found my old Chrysler Newport on cinder blocks—no tires or windshield. When I ran into him on Fourth Avenue, he said, “Homeboy, I take your tires and your money.” He flashed beautiful dentures as he spoke.
Here we have a man, I told my wife, who always speaks in the present tense. “He humps you,” she said, “and all you got to talk about is grammar?” I used to be smart in school and was simply using what I knew to make light. Because she was a nervous woman with blood pressure issues and fibroids, I didn’t mention that during my encounter with Potash, I mouthed off at him, and he responded by flashing a Saturday night special, a silver pistol with a black handle. Looking back, I have to inventory the fact that I took unnecessary risks and did not engage in the sort of open marital communications that would move a relationship forward.
I’ll give myself credit for working hard and long in those days. Put that one in the “assets” column. One November morning, after I wiped up an ocean of dog puke in the kitchen, I headed to the Bergen Street garage where I would pick up my cab. The bald lady next door was out in the dark as usual—it was about half past four—sweeping the sidewalk for no good reason. Over ninety years old, she walked without a cane. I usually didn’t speak to her, but feeling lonely because I’d had so many nights on the couch and because my daughter now ignored me as much as my wife did—and because I’ve got this soft spot for elderly ladies, having had a grandmother, Agnes, who took me in no matter what trouble I made at home or school—I asked Mrs. Diaz how she was doing. She answered, “God is cruel.”
“Why’s that, Mrs. Diaz?”
“Because he don’t take me. He lets me live too long.”
This hurt my heart. What should I say or do? I put my arm around her, careful because there wasn’t much to her shrunken body. “Well, try to have a wonderful day anyhow, Mrs. Diaz.”
She stopped sweeping, looked at me with eyes as wide and sweet as Kelly’s, and said in Puerto Rican Spanish: “Hey, why don’t you suck my dick?”
This was like opening a Hershey’s kiss, slowly peeling away the tin foil, popping it in your mouth, and realizing it’s cat shit you’re chewing. I backed away from her, confused at the time, not knowing why an old lady would say such a thing to me. I took the taste of her words into the subway that morning and wondered, as the train clacked, what in hell was wrong with me that I couldn’t find a little more sunlight in my life, that I couldn’t draw love even out of a great-great-grandma like Mrs. Diaz. Therefore, I should inventory this flaw: When I ran into confusing circumstances, I didn’t sort things out through reason and common sense.
Because I was the new guy at my garage, the boss assigned me a dinged cab. No matter. I had a route that worked. I’d pick up West Side hookers and drive them home to Harlem, the Heights, and the Bronx. Good cash tippers. Then, I’d swing to the East Side for secretaries late to work. Lunchtime, I’d take businessmen to their clubs, low-tipping shmucks easily aggravated when you got stuck in traffic. Sometimes, I’d meet my friend Sugarman in the LaGuardia Airport cab line, and we’d smoke a joint or otherwise alter our minds before taking fares to Manhattan hotels. With our rails greased, the day would go smoother.
But that day, my car died on the Williamsburg Bridge and I had nothing left. I raised the hood and walked away, listening to drivers stuck behind me in the lunchtime traffic, honking and cursing me. I called the garage from a pay phone and told them they could pick up their damned cab and keep their job. This is where better self-control would have paid off, being that I had a family and bills to pay. I’ll give myself credit for my second call, to my brother Duke—still living with Mom and Dad in treelined Bay Ridge—to see if he could get me work as a roofer that same day. He had a small operation out of Flushing and loved his work almost too much, always philosophizing about it. Tar, he would say, covers a multitude of sins. Meaning, I guess, that when you foul up metal coping, you hide your mistakes under black goo. He had nothing except a few unkind words about my drug usage and Dad’s complete disappointment with me.
No job. I walked the city for hours in order to arrive home on my normal schedule, around dinnertime, and fool my wife into thinking I was still employed. I popped pills along the way and scored a few more in that dirty park outside City Hall.
I skipped up my front stairs and went into our second-floor entrance. No one answered when I called out my hellos. Usually, I’d be greeted by the dogs and the smell of supper, though Geena and Kelly always ate before I came home. No barks. No food in the air. No family noise.
I walked into the kitchen. Seeing no one, I cracked open the door leading down to our first level. And I smelled death. I charged downstairs, screaming for Kelly, thinking Potash had come in and shot her and Geena to pay me for disrespecting him. He’d be down there with his Dentyne smile, and I’d rip his teeth out, pound him bloody with his own stupid gun. As I entered Kelly’s room at the front of the house, I saw the worst: the pink play kitchen I stole for her one Christmas lay on its side, plastic dishes and pans scattered on the throw rug. I swear my heart pounded in my dead, blown-out ear. For sure, the next sight would be her body.
But there was only Razz, stretched out like he froze while running, his lips shrunk to a snarl, his fangs bare. Black flies buzzed. I found a note (I still have) thumbtacked to the floor:
Wilco, I called the police and the department of sanitation, but nobody would take a dead dog away. The smell got bad and we couldn’t stop crying about Razz, especially K. I’m at Mom’s and will live there from now on. Get rid of the dog or live with it if you want. I don’t know how he died, but you must’ve known he was sick, since you cleaned up his vomit this morning. It would have been nice if you’d told me so I could have got him to a vet. And Kelly found this picture in your jacket on the couch.
On the dog’s ass, she’d duct-taped a Polaroid of a woman’s hand with green nail polish holding my johnson like it was an umbrella handle. Geena had to know it was me because of the way it bent up and the presence of a freckle she’d joked about in better times. I don’t remember the woman’s name, but I do recall her difficulty snapping that scene on camera with one free hand.
I wince now from having exposed Kelly to such a thing, but feel relief that she’s alive and safe today, age ten, far away from her wreck of a dad. I should have told them about the dog vomit that morning. I should have figured out that one of them was sick. Even if I hated dogs, I should have cared about Razz because my daughter cared. Put that in the “flaws” column.
For some reason—and I had little reason left—I concluded that the way back to my family was to properly dispose of the dog. If I did that and reported that success to my wife, she would forgive and forget.
Let me add that this animal had a chest like a wolf’s. One hot day, when he fainted on the corner of Broadway and 39th Street, I had to lug him five stories to our apartment. I wrenched my back and couldn’t get out of bed for a week. But with Geena and Kelly gone, this job had to be done.
Standing in the dead-dog stink and buzzing, I remembered that in the basement was a workshop with rusty tools left behind by the original owner of the house. When we first moved in, this got me thinking about how a family should live, with a dad showing his kid how to build things, maybe making a wooden locomotive. I went downstairs and under a homemade table found a pickax and full-size spade.
Out in the backyard, I hacked at the hard earth of Brooklyn, sometimes kneeling, choking that spade handle with both hands like a man digging a foxhole under fire. When I stood, I put my back into every swing of that pickax, the work being punishment I deserved.
After a while, out of breath and drenched in sweat, I noticed Mrs. Diaz at her second-floor window, with arms folded on the sill. I yelled that she shouldn’t worry, that I hadn’t killed anyone, and that this hole was for a pet, not a person. A joke, Mrs. Diaz. She didn’t laugh or answer. She drew a shawl around her head and kept watching as if I were a TV show.
She left at some point, while I lost myself in that chopping and digging, wanting it never to end. A boulder, about the size of a watermelon, stuck out near the top of the hole and I dug around it, letting it jut. My hands swelled and blistered, and my knuckles grew raw from scraping the side of the pit. The sky darkened and I know I must’ve been down six feet when I stopped, because I had to raise the shovel high to lift dirt out of the hole. When the time came to fetch Razz, it was difficult to climb out.
As I dragged Razz by the tail, air must’ve escaped from his lungs, and his deep moan gave me a scare. I felt for a pulse, reaching deep into his neck fur. Then I closed his watery, half-shut eyes, and using my thumbs, tried to press his lips down over his teeth. I don’t know why, but for the first time I saw that dog as an old man, deserving more than I ever gave. I ripped the stupid photo from his ass, and when I pulled him outside, I took care not to bounce his head down the steps.
At the side of the grave, I knelt down to roll him in. The stiff corpse fought me as I tried to move it and got hung up on the rock I’d left sticking out. I leaned over the pit to free it, bracing myself on one arm as I worked with the other. I wore a thick Irish sweater my wife got me a year before on my twenty-eighth birthday. My sleeve got hooked and tangled on one of the bare fangs, and now I needed the other hand to free myself, but all my weight was on that hand as I leaned across the grave doing a sort of one-armed push-up. I bent down and tried using my teeth to free my sweater from the dog’s mouth.
* * *
I don’t remember the fall. I woke to a splash of icy water, facing Razz. My head stung and when I touched my face, my hand came back sticky with blood. I’d hit my head on the way down and had been unconscious for a while. Above, a circle poked over the grave, like the dark side of the moon. Mrs. Diaz must’ve dumped a bucket of water on me and now looked in. “Wait,” she said. I tried to stand, but felt so woozy. I had no choice but to sit on Razz with my back against the wall. I figured she’d gone for the police to haul me out. That spooked me, and for a few seconds I dug through my pockets for pills that might get me busted.
For the longest while, I squatted down there in the sweetness of Brooklyn clay and death that smelled more human than dog. I heard a scratching above, like something being dragged. Pebbles and dirt rained down, and I thought, This crazy old lady’s got the spade, and she’s going to bury me. Light-headed, I tried standing while I screamed for her to stop. “Please, Mrs. Diaz, please.” I caught dirt on my lips and tongue as I shouted and had to spit it out.
And boof! An old wooden ladder shot into the pit, nearly clipping my shoulder. I managed to climb out. When I got to the lawn, I caught sight of Mrs. Diaz shuffling down the alley between our houses. I called her name and yelled thanks. “Junkie,” she said without turning round.
I want you to know, Sponsor-to-be, that I finished the burial job, a fact that I will list in my “assets” column. I took a brick for a headstone and used a nail to scratch “RIP Razz” inside a heart. Sitting on the back steps in the cool fall air, I watched dawn crack over the rooftops. I called my wife at her parents’ house and no one answered. I drove there and found the place completely dark. Though I pounded on the door and screamed myself hoarse, no one answered. Eventually, the neighbors called the cops.
I wish I could take Step 9 and make amends. I’d start with Mrs. Diaz, but she’s dead now. She had me figured out. One summer I stole new pipe for a plumbing job laid out along the side of her house. Those were the days you took copper to a junkyard and got enough cash for a few grams of whatever made you happy.
I’d like to stand up at an AA meeting, Dear Sponsor-to-be. “My name is William,” I would say, “and my friends call me Wilco.” “I am an addict,” I’d admit to the chain-smokers in the pews. “There’s nothing funny,” I would go on, “about what happened at Sunset Park, Brooklyn, though I’ve told it funny too many times.” And no, this is not a tidy tale about a brave veteran who hit a real rock bottom and climbed the glowing ladder of hope. Truth is, I discovered freebasing after burying that dog. Geena had the courts take Kelly from me. They’re somewhere near San Diego, I hear, and Moo is among the living.
So it’s long past time I surrender to a greater Power as required by Step 2. But when I close my eyes and try, Dear Sponsor-to-be, all I see are those icons, flat-faced and painted gold. How about I picture the goddess with sweet-potato hair who sang to Moo and dabbed at his stitches?