Andrew Arnold lives and writes in Houston, TX. He graduated from the University of Evansville in Evansville, Indiana with a BFA in creative writing. His writing has appeared on the radio, including WNIN and NPR affiliates.
All he wanted was the dog to quit yapping. Lew had been waiting all morning for silence, but it was almost nine and the shrill bark still hadn't subsided. The summer heat didn't help, turning his room into a slow bake oven even with an open window, through which he could see nothing but the cloudless sky. Don't own no dog if you can't control it, he thought. It was simply inexcusable to let the dog carry on. He'd rather be back at Susquehanna Steel than listen anymore, to be cooped up in his room unable to move without help. All he could do was lay there, gradually sinking into his pool of sweaty covers and sheets like quicksand. He looked at the pictures on the dresser and remembered what happened that day—Bill on the porch when he was young, another of Thomas unwrapping his first shotgun on Christmas—but the dog forced itself in. Closing his eyes he tried to shut out the sound. Instead, his attention went to the weight in his chest, a constant presence in the past months. The more upset he got the harder it was to breathe. His lungs seemed to empty like an old, leaky balloon. Even the thought of his bunnies couldn't distract him from what was going on inside of him. They were the best thing about life right now, back when he could watch them chase each other from the porch. He always made sure they had enough to eat, as many carrots as they wanted. But there wasn't much he could do for them now.
When the house began to smell of butter, he knew they were coming to visit. He didn't want them to. His sons didn't need to see him this way, wearing nothing but his boxers and a white V-neck. Unshaven, a nice growth of marble stubble had accumulated on his cheek. Amelia had been in earlier to help dress him, but he said it was too hot and shooed her away. Now she was in the kitchen making grilled cheese for the boys.
It was half past one when the front door screeched open. His body was old, no doubt, but he could still hear like an Indian scout on the hunt, although it helped that the walls were thin as the paper covering them. He heard Amelia shuffling between the linoleum in the kitchen and the brown-carpeted living room in her pink slippered feet, serving them their food and whatever they were drinking. Soon they started talking about him.
“How is he?” Bill asked, the oldest of the two brothers, as he sank into the couch. He wasn't hungry so he plucked away the crust and threw it in his mouth, wiping his greasy fingers on his jeans. Once in a while he would brush the crumbs and leftover cheese out of his beard. He could tell his mother was frazzled.
“Not good,” she said from the La-Z Boy, her words slow and delicate as if trying not to offend. At the moment she was more embarrassed with the lunch spread. Normally she would have made a meatloaf or baked ham, something special, but all that came out of the oven these days were the loaves of bread that were stored there for when Lew felt like eating a sandwich. “He didn't sleep well. He couldn't breathe easy so he was up the whole night. Keeps saying it feels like pneumonia. He'll try to get up but it's too hard, been in bed all morning. I tried getting him dressed but he wouldn't even lift his leg. Some pillows is all he needs, he says. Pillows and time—all he ever asks for is to keep feeding the rabbits.”
Thomas, the youngest, nodded and listened. It troubled him to hear about his father this way, but he was more nervous than angry. Even his mother's comment, about how his belly bulged from his black polo and cargo shorts, hadn't stopped him from glancing at the stairs, half expecting the man who'd intimidated him as child to descend at any moment.
Bill was mad for other reasons. It wasn't until weeks after their father's condition worsened when they first heard anything. It had come up almost by mistake over the phone, their mother mentioning coughing fits. Bill had called Thomas. Even then it had taken persistent calls from both to get her to admit anything was wrong. Valuable time had been lost. She had her reasons, she said, for not telling them sooner. She didn't want them to get worried, didn't know a good time to call. He knew that she wouldn't call to check on them during a hurricane for fear it might inconvenience them.
“He's been to the doctor, right?” Thomas asked.
“He won't go back to the doctor, again,” she said. “He says if goes to the hospital he won't come out. I can't convince him otherwise.”
Lew had been to several doctors, but Amelia hadn't heard any of it since she stayed in the waiting room at his request. They'd run a few tests—if it hummed they'd put him through it, he liked to say—and call him back once they had the results, where they would say a variation of the same tune: “It's too far along. The best we can do is make you comfortable.”
I can take care of myself, Lew thought upstairs. He could have been all stubborn and stayed put, not even gone to the doctor; there was plenty left from mill pensions to take care of his needs. If he was left minding his own, there'd be no one to blame but himself. If he got sick and died, it'd be his fault. With less people around there'd be less fingers to point. But he had listened, listened as Amelia told him of dreams where she wakes up and he's dead with no one around. So he let her drag him in the Buick to Huntington to see a specialist. His head must have gone funny, too. For a while, after the doc and Amelia told him to take it easy, he thought he'd be OK with it; there'd be plenty of time to read all the books and movies he had waited to see, take care of the bunnies.
Wrong. He couldn't do any of it, and now he had pills to take and Amelia checking in on him every hour like clockwork.
Lew was tired of looking at the cracks in his ceiling, so he tried to adjust the pillow, but the weight came down on his chest like a bowling ball. It was like an invisible hand pushing down on him, like God Himself was trying to keep him from doing something stupid. The effort made the air rush out of him. It was another minute until he could breathe again. The heat didn't help much. It was like breathing in gas. The fan droning on the nightstand did what it could to keep the air moving, the old metal groaning with each oscillation, but it brought more noise than relief. Downstairs they continued to talk about what to do with him. Bill wanted her to get a nurse.
“What are you going to do if he needs to go to the emergency room, Mom? Carry him downstairs yourself? He needs people who know how to take care of him.”
In his mind, he could see Amelia thinking it over, with her fingers cupped across her mouth, the veins in her hands sticking out like roots. It was the same face she had when she was deep in thought with her crosswords. Only there was no clue to nudge her in the right direction.
“I'll talk about it with him,” Amelia said.
“Like hell you will,” Bill snapped.
Don't talk to your mother that way, she doesn't know. The conversation made Lew's temple pound. Or maybe it was the heat. Or the fan. Or that damn dog. From what he could tell, it was a German shorthair, brown with white specs down its flank. It barked at anything and everything—cars, children walking home from school, even Randall Gleeson, its owner. It would chase the squirrels and rabbits around its yard, its jaws snapping at their tails. If it ever managed to catch one, it would shake them until their necks broke. Once Lew watched from the back porch as the dog tore apart a mockingbird while Randall watched on, laughing. “Damn things been crapping on my car for weeks,” Randall said with a wink from across the shrubs, as if they shared a secret joke. One of these days it was going to get one of his bunnies. In his heart he knew would give up heaven for a chance to shut up that mongrel for good. But what could he if couldn't even put his pants on in the morning? On the bad days like these he couldn't stand without wobbling, leaving him on monitored bed rest. His wife lowered him on the toilet to take a leak sometimes. It was pathetic.
He pulled open the drawer to the nightstand and slid his hand around until his fingers found the small plastic cylinder he looked for. He popped it open with his thumb and took one of the blue pills and swallowed it dry. He felt the effects quickly. The weight in his chest shrank to size of a walnut. His breathing eased, his chest relaxing. They always seemed to help, gave him the strength he forgot he once had.
Closing his eyes, he thought back to the war—the Ardennes, winter, cold as hell and colder still. Crunchy snow slick as ice. The thought alone sent chills through him and made his cheeks burn in the August heat. The Germans had been shelling their position at the edge of the woods with mortars, the bursts sending a shower of pine on top of their foxholes. Most of the men, for fear of being caught in the open, didn't leave their holes all day, eating, sleeping, and relieving themselves from the safety of their shallow burrow. Like bunnies.
There was a soldier in the hole next to Lew's, a corporal whose name he didn't remember. McCormick? McConnell? In between shellings he'd peek his head out and scan the woods. His target: long-eared snow rabbits. He'd get them in the sights of his M1 Garand and they'd disappear in a red cloud, the blood misting the ground like dew. Each shot would bring a shout of “Cease fire!” from the Lieutenant, but minutes or hours later there'd be another shot, another cry, then silence. No one ever asked him why he did it, but in hushed voices they called him Corporal Cottontail, right up until V-E Day.
There was a knock at the door. In his trance, he had lost track of the conversation in the living room and missed sounds of footsteps coming up the narrow stairs. The door opened and a bearded face stuck its head in.
“Were you sleeping?” Bill said.
Lew grunted. Why couldn't they just leave him alone? Bill stuffed some more pillows behind his back and propped him up. Sitting upright Lew caught his face in the mirror. With the white shirt on he looked hardly there, a specter, translucent, his great blue eyes being the only exception, standing out like sapphires in sand. His son took his hand and sat on the bed next to him.
He tried to wiggle out of his grasp but couldn't. “I ain't dead yet,” Lew said. “I don't appreciate talk about me like that, like listening to you plan my own funeral.”
“No, papa. We're trying to help.”
“Where's your brother?”
“Keeping momma company. Warshing the dishes, I think.”
There was a moment of silence. From downstairs they could hear the sound of running of water and the clattering of dishes.
“Just give me some time,” Lew said.
“Not till we settle on something.”
Lew ignored him and looked at the window. Remembering the war and Corporal Cottontail, like the afterglow from a movie, he was hit with an idea.
“Do me a favor, will you,” he said. “Get my gun.”
“Now you're just delusional.”
“I ain't gone to pick my teeth with it. I'm no coward. Just want to hold it is all. Clean it a bit. Haven't done it in a while. Might run.”
Bill looked him over, but all he got back was the straight-faced seriousness he'd grown up with for twenty years of his life.
“The sixteen gauge?” Bill asked.
“That's the one.”
Lew asked him to keep it in its case and hide it—“so your mother doesn't have a heart attack”—underneath the back steps, behind the loose bit of trimming from where the raccoons had broken in and nested the summer Bill was ten. Lew got the hose and flushed them out. Bill, then twelve, waiting there with his .22, tried to shoot them down but only hit dirt. Lew had grabbed the gun from his son's hands and got one just before it reached the alley behind the house. Later, he turned the skin into a hat so Bill could dress as a pioneer for Halloween. “I'll get it when everybody settled for the night.”
Bill wasn't convinced. Nobody just wants to hold a gun, he thought, remembering back to the days of his first rifle, how he itched all summer for deer season to pull the trigger, thinking If you want a gun you want to fire it. That's just human nature.
He told his father he wasn't going to do it.
Bill was about to leave when Lew grabbed his arm. Even Lew was surprised with his strength.
“Wait a minute,” Lew said. “Gimme the gun—get me the gun, and I'll—I'll go back to the doctor, talk to whoever you ask me to.”
Bill stopped. “Are we negotiating?”
“I'll consider it,” he amended. They shook hands. Bill was about to leave once again when Lew stopped him. “And some cigarettes,” Lew added. “Marlboros.”
“Shit,” Bill said before rapping his knuckles against the door frame on his way out.
An hour later, Thomas's pick-up revved to life and melted away, the muffler popping as it went, coming back fifteen minutes later. From upstairs Lew heard the tinkle of glass and knew the boys bought beer. It isn't long before the smell of hot oil filled the house, and the smell of fried catfish wafted upstairs. Amelia came up with a plate of leftovers but he just sniffed at it, so she left it on the dresser.
Outside the sky went orange and cicadas were still restless. Down in the yard Lew heard the rusty cringe of the lawn chairs. Bill appeared on the porch holding two beers in each hand and gave one to Thomas. When they realized there was no bottle opener, they opened them with their teeth and spat the caps on the lawn.
“Remember when we went deer huntin' in the Adirondacks?” Thomas said.
Bill remembered. Thomas had caught a buck in the open. When they got to it, it was still alive, its eyes wide with fear. They're father always said slit its throat, but Thomas had left the knife back in the car. Scared, knowing his father was coming, Thomas reloaded and put the muzzle to the gut and gave it both barrels. Lew was furious when he found out, and made him clean it and pick out all the buckshot even though most of the meat was ruined. When he was done, covered in gore, Thomas looked his father in the eye and said he hated him. “That's the spirit,” Lew said back. “You looking more like a man already.”
“Cold as hell. Pretty sure I got frostbite on my pecker waiting for you to finish,” Bill said with a smile. “Dad was always about a good kill, like he was the protector of the wilderness. I always pictured him a cowboy civilizing the last of the frontier.” He drained the remainder of his drink and opened another. “You didn't go up to see him.”
“In the morning, if he feels better,” he said, slapping a mosquito on his pink thigh. “I didn't want to see him all tied up in bed like that. I just got this image of him being this certain way and seeing him would change that. I think he wouldn't have wanted that either.”
“You didn't like shooting things. You liked reading 'bout them in books. Dad never got that.”
The two of them sat in silence drinking another beer and watched a group of cardinals chase a bluebird in and out of a tree where they were building a nest. Soon fireflies were casting their electric light, turning the yard into a private planetarium of stars. Somewhere a toad croaked a mournful rhythm.
“What's going to happen, you think?” Thomas said.
Bill had no idea. His father had always been a wildcard, always doing the right thing in his mind. There was nobody who could stop him save for himself. All he could do was wait and see and enjoy this beer while it was still cold.
“Couldn't say,” Bill said. “He's always done the right thing in his own way. Maybe he'll do just that. Maybe in the end it will be worth it.”
Thomas slapped another mosquito and wiped it on his shorts. “Mom's a wreck.”
“Who isn't at times like these?”
Inside, Lew was thinking about rabbits. He was wondering if Amelia had remembered to feed them some extra carrots and water before the strays got to them when she knocked on the door and came in carrying a glass of water and Lew's sleeping pill and placed them on the nightstand. When he realized she was waiting for him to take it, he slipped the pill in his mouth and took a sip of the water and swallowed. She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead and said she loved him, and Lew smiled back at her. On her way out she grabbed the untouched plate of food.
“I'll be next door as always,” she said and closed the door.
When he was sure she couldn't hear, he spat the pill on the floor and went about planning his evening.
Around midnight the house was silent except for the sound of the downstairs air conditioner roaring to life. The handful of painkillers Lew had taken earlier were kicking in; he felt like a new man, ready to conquer anything. The pressure had all but gone, though he didn't mind it as much, a baseball rather than an anvil. A bit dizzy, he managed to push himself off the bed and, leaning on the dresser for support, slipped a pair of khakis over his skinny legs, followed by a pair of white cotton socks. He found a pair of leather sandals underneath the bed and put them on. Before he left the room he made sure to tuck in his shirt.
The more he tried not to make a sound, the more he seemed to with each step. The floor boards groaned underneath his weight, while he almost tripped over the rug. It was like the house wanted him to get caught. He peeked into Amelia's room and saw she had fallen asleep in her rocking chair with the infomercials for easy workouts on mute. From the way her head rested in her palm, it looked like she had fallen asleep trying to think something out. Even in sleep she couldn't escape her thoughts.
On the way down, he leaned on the railing for each step on the stairs. At the bottom he nearly fell over with surprise when Thomas, asleep on the couch, let loose a snarling snore, a beer bottle still in his hand. There was no sign of Bill. When he was convinced he was asleep he made his way out to the porch.
The air outside was cool and heavy with moisture. The yard was littered with empty brown bottles abandoned by their drinkers. He checked out front and found Bill passed out in the cab of the truck tucked underneath a survival blanket. Damn boys, he thought, walking back to the porch. They better clean up my lawn come morning or I'll break one over their heads. There was a half-full bottle left in a cup holder and he finished it, warm but satisfying. He sidled over to the loose board on the right side of the landing and jiggled it free. Underneath was pitch black so he got a flashlight from the kitchen and went back out. He found nothing but webs and dead spiders at first. He was about to give up when the found a canvas bag off to the side. He reached in and felt the familiar redwood stock of the Remington, the barrel still smooth and cold. Flicking open the breech he checked to see if it was loaded but it wasn't. He fished for some rounds in the bag and found some in a side pocket and loaded them. Then, remembering the final item, he searched the bag once more but couldn't find anything.
Damn drunks forgot the cigarettes.
Randall Gleeson worked the night shift at the Mini-Mart across from the Chevrolet dealer on Main. To get there you'd have to cross a couple streets but at this hour there was no traffic so Lew wasn't worried. He could take his time.
Randall was locking the doors by the time he got there. A halo of moths circled the neon light above him.
“Haven't seen you out in the yard,” Randall said. Lew could tell he'd been drinking liquor from his own store—bourbon from the smell of it. He noticed the feral crop of chest hair poking out of his denim shirt, more hair than he had left on his head.
“Been under the weather. Could I get some smokes?”
“Closing up for the night. No one ever comes after eleven anymore.” Randall looked him over. “Look like you seen better days.”
“Any on you?”
“Sure.” Randall pulled a pack out of his shirt pocket, shook one free, and handed it over, lighting it with a chunky, black zippo. “Say, you getting ready to dust off the old cannon? Deer season is right around the corner.”
“Something like that.” He took a couple puffs and coughed the smoke right back up.
Randall looked slightly disgusted. “Sounds awful. You sure you should be doing that? You don't look so hot.”
Lew spat some phlegm and said, “Not as bad as that dog of yours. Ever going to shut him up?”
“Just being a dog. No harm in that.”
He asked what his name was—Rebel, after the Confederate yell. Lew said it was fitting for all the noise the thing made.
“Does he hunt?”
“Ever since he was a pup. Why you ask?”
Lew shrugged, said he was curious.
Confused, Randall went on. “I love that dog—man's best friend and all that. If you can't get along with a dog you ain't much of anything. Reb's probably the only thing that keeps me here. Feel bad for him, though. I work nights so I sleep during the day. Don't have much time with him. Keep him tied up outside mostly for the fresh air. Some owner, huh?”
Lew didn't hear him. He wasn't listening but rather looking at the stars. The dipper. Orion's belt. Canis Major. He hadn't looked at them, really stared at them, since he was a kid, back when he dreamed of going into space. His father laughed at him, telling him once he was done with high school he'd go to work in the steel mill like he did. And that's what happened. He worked there right until he shipped off to Europe, and while most of the workers went to school with the G.I. Bill, he went straight back to work, hearing his father's heckling voice in the back of his mind. Nothing had changed at the mill except for a new, red-headed receptionist, a worrisome local girl with a pretty face and a nice smile, who he thought he'd take out for dinner at the Green Gables.
Somewhere in the distance a dog barked, and he remembered what he had to do. Lew had never shot a dog before. Deer, yes. But a dog? Never. The thing wasn't even wild, so there was nothing to tame. Not like that charging moose he killed up in Alberta, how it took five shots to drop it.
Yeah, he could shoot a dog.
“Be seeing you, Randall,” Lew said, stamping out the butt with his heel before walking off.
Rebel started to yelp the moment he stepped in the yard. On the walk back, the medicine started to wear off and lose strength, making each bark pounded inside his head like a mallet against steel. The dog was tied to a length of cord that had been staked in the ground. It was dark, but enough light leaked through the bushes from other houses and the moon, so he could see the animal tugging against it as far as it would go.
Clutching the canvas slung over his shoulder, he found a fraying tennis ball and shook it in his hand. The dog only barked more. “Here, Rebel, Rebel, wanna play?” The dog stopped and cocked its head, confused. Lew tossed the ball and the dog caught it in his mouth and wagged its tail. It seemed like it hadn't had any attention all day, a sea change, as if the only taming the dog needed was a little playtime. “Good doggy, nice doggy.” He cautiously approached and let it sniff his hand and lick it, leaving a sticky smear on his palm. Hanging from the clothesline he spied a leash. “Hey, Reb, want to go for a walk?”
Lew knew the quietest place, a place where no one would notice, was Riverside Park. For the first couple blocks, he worried someone passing in a car would recognize him or the dog, but once he rounded Lexington he became more confident with each step. Rebel was doing most of the walking, pulling Lew along the sidewalk in his excitement, his giant tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth.
He was sucking wind when he pulled him through the rainbow-colored playground that marked the entrance and started across the field to the river. The wet grass was ankle deep and in need of cutting, he thought. All around him grasshoppers would dive in his path, some thumping against his leg in panic. Rebel caught a couple in his mouth and ate them with a crunch. At the tree line he could hear bubbling water splashing over rocks and sloshing against the bank. He pulled out the flash light and switched it on with his thumb. Rebel's eyes glowed yellow in the yellow light as he sat in the dirt biting at some fleas. After a couple throws of the ball he figured he better get it over with.
He fetched the shotgun and flicked off the safety. The ball still in his mouth, Rebel recognized the gun and began to jump all over him, his paws pushing him off balance, knocking the barrel away. Lew tried to level but his hands were too shaky. Hold still, mutt, or you gone be a walkin' tripod, he thought, even though his hands were doing most of the moving. The longer he took the more he thought about what he was doing, and the less he thought he could do it.
But then the picture of Rebel clamping his jaws around one of his rabbits flashed in Lew's mind. He pulled the trigger.
The recoil surprised him, sending the stock into his shoulder and the shot into the grass. Rebel was on the ground staring up at the source of the sudden sound. Lew reloaded and raised the shotgun once more but couldn't fire. At least something wild knew to save its self, when to run, thinking it was just as lame as he was. Lew took aim again, only this time sending the round whistling through the trees.
“Go on, get,” Lew said.
When the dog didn't move, he kicked it and sent him whimpering into the night. He packed his things. He was so tired he was tempted to just lay in the grass and fall asleep like he did growing up on the nights when it was enough. What if he didn't wake up? He didn't want some kids skipping stones in the water to find him like that, so he started back to the house. Amelia would have a fit if he wasn't in bed when she woke. But soon none of that mattered because he was thinking about the rabbits bouncing through the yard to munch on the carrots he'd left for them. He should name them, he thought. It didn't seem right for them not to have names. He imagined watching them from the porch make families upon families, all from the safety of his backyard, entire genealogies of which he was the sole historian.
Once in a while, Lew would stop and look over his shoulder. Behind him was all darkness, the park now covered with a black veil, nothing but the street lights ahead. He'd thought he heard something coming up behind him, a distant patter, but when he looked there was nothing. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking, but as he readjusted the strap over his shoulder, he knew not far behind someone was looking for a playmate.