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Dog Catcher Day: 1982 — Nick Bertelson

1: Any Means Necessary

Sheriff McKenzie called me around six in the morning before the restaurant I lived above opened for the day. The rotary phone on the table beside my bed blared out half a ring before I wrestled with my blankets and knocked the receiver off its base so the damn thing didn’t wake up Sammy. It tumbled to the floor, and I pulled on the cord like a fish stringer with a single bluegill at the end. It bounced across the carpet as I hoisted the receiver up to the bed.

“Yeah?” I answered, knowing McKenzie was on the other end.

“The Black Lab is in the park again,” the sheriff said.

“What am I supposed to do about it?’

“Your job, asshole. Do whatever you can to get him,” he growled, “at all costs.” He never used that phrase before. My eyelids shot up, but he kept going as if it was no big deal. “I’m sick of picking up trash all over the park neighborhood. Last week he scattered the trash on 16th street down the entire block. The garbage men are scared to death of him.”

I stopped listening.

“At all costs, huh?”

“I’ll give you two hundred dollars,” he said.

“Two fifty.”

“I’ll give you two hundred dollars.”

“Any means necessary?”

“Any means necessary.”

I stared through the doorway into the living room for a minute.

“Okay.”

I heard a click on the other end, and I dropped the phone down between the four pegs above the rotary dial and turned toward the window. It looked like a TV full of static.

The sheriff never said anything like that before.

2: Pupsicles

“What’s that?” Sammy asked, pointing at Merve’s thermos. She was sitting on Merve’s lap, resting on his hunting vest full of shotgun shells. He looked like a bank robber with dynamite strapped around his belly.

“What’s what?” Merve asked.

“That green thing up there.”

“My thermos,” Merve said. His voice was rough from the pack of cigarettes he smoked each day.

Sammy reached forward and grabbed the thermos off of the dashboard, her hands not big enough to wrap around the whole thing; she wrestled it to her lap with both hands as if she were trying to manhandle a flopping catfish. She unclipped the cup from the lid and started banging it on the side of the cylinder.

“Hey,” Merve said. “You’re going to dent the cup. C’mon.” Merve pulled the thermos from her hands.

“Daddy, can I hold onto the thermos?” Sammy asked. “It keeps my hands warm.”

“Ask Merve.”

“Okay,” Merve said. He didn’t wait for her to ask, just rolled the thing into her puffy winter coat with his leathery hands.

“Any means necessary? That’s really what he said?” Merve asked.

“Not around her.” I tilted my head toward Sammy. “Wait till I drop her off.”

I wheeled the truck through a right turn, blew past a stop sign, and Shadow barked in the back.

“Shadow!” I screamed. My fist pounded against the back window behind my head. “Shut up!” She’d been barking all morning.

“Daddy, whose dog is that?”

It was the second time that week Merve and I found Mrs. Valier’s Labrador, Shadow, rummaging through the garbage near the nursing home.

“Mrs. Valier’s,” I said, “and no, we can’t keep him.”

“Why?!” Sammy asked.

“We go over this every time I bring a dog home. I can’t have pets in the apartment.”

Sammy sat with her arms folded, the hair on her head rubbing against Merve’s massive beard. She lost interest in the thermos since the dog started whimpering in the back. I always picked up Merve before I dropped off Sammy because he was her car-seat. I lost the old one a few months before and couldn’t afford a new one.

“No, noo,” Merve said to Sammy. He grabbed the thermos just before she put the spout to her mouth. She had unscrewed the lid and was going to take a sip. “You need seven years worth of hair on your chest to take a drink of that.”

“But I’m a girl. I don’t get hair on my chest.”

“Well then, you need it in other places,” Merve said.

“Jesus Christ,” I mumbled. “You are a sick man.”

The truck bounced and the leather dog muzzles hanging in the back bobbed like punching bags.

“Wonder where her pups are?” Merve asked.

“Whose pups?” Sammy asked. “Daddy, are we getting puppies?”

“Probably froze last night,” I said.

“Who?” Sammy asked. “Daddy, the puppies didn’t freeze, did they?”

“No, something else. Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

“Boy, her tits were raw,” Merve said.

“What froze, Daddy?” Sammy was grabbing my coat sleeve.

“Shadow!” I shouted. Her whining stopped.

“So you think they froze, huh?” Merve asked.

“Probably. We’re lucky she didn’t freeze. I left her in the back all night.”

“Mmmm…Pupsicles,” Merve said.

“Popsicles?” Sammy asked.

3: The First Baptist Church’s Worst Nightmare

Miss Setland stood outside in a short-sleeved blouse and a black dress, starched so stiff the wind couldn’t budge it. She watched my truck roll up into the parking lot with her hands on her hips and a bulldog frown. Her hair was dyed red with streaks of grey peeking through.

We pulled up to the stairs and I got out to walk Sammy to the door. I heard Merve’s door open and close, and I turned around to make sure he wasn’t trying anything stupid. He was.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked.

“Going with you.”

I turned around to see Miss Setland standing stern.

I looked back at Merve and tried to sound pleasant for the scarecrow on the steps staring at me.

“Get. In. The. Truck. Merve.”

“Daddy, c’mon.” Sammy’s hand pulled me toward the door.

I looked at Merve the way I might look at a serial rapist–the same way Setland always looked at me. His door opened and shut again, and the sound of Miss Setland’s voice screeched like a train brake strangling a rusty wheel. It made my neck tighten.

“You’re late again, Mr. Kent.”

“Yeah, I had to pick up Merve, and…”

“Never mind,” she said, her hand up in a half-hail to an invisible Hitler. “I hate excuses.” She grabbed Sammy’s hand and yanked her inside away from the cold. I heard Shadow barking from the kennel behind me.

“Shadow! Goddammit!” I screamed toward the truck.

“Mr. Kent!”

My testicles sucked into my stomach. My guts turned to dry ice. I swung around and saw the door still open. Twenty little preschoolers stood in the hallway with their scarves and coats and mittens half removed. They were frozen; their mouths open like fifty little block holes in outer space.

Miss Setland threw Sammy behind her and said,  “If you ever use the lord’s name in vain again…and in a house of God, of all places! I should have you arrested…all the things you’ve put this poor girl through…”

“Well, really…I was on the stoop,” I said.

She sucked the last part of her sentence back in her mouth. “What?”

“Nothing,” I said.

“What did you say to me?”

I grabbed the glass door as Setland opened her mouth for another rant. I pushed it closed, muffling the voice of the evangelical bitch. I walked back to my truck, a three-quarter-ton Silverado I had since ’72, with its long side view mirrors. Merve called it “The Elephant” since it was primer grey and the two mirrors stuck out like huge ears on both sides; the box kennels in the back sat flush with the top of the cab, completing the thick body of my elephant-mobile.

I huddled back inside with Merve and could feel the rust-eaten exhaust shaking through my seat.

“Why couldn’t I go up with you?” Merve asked.

“Are you fucking crazy? You try that shit everyday. All you want to do is piss her off.”

“That’s all I did when she was my teacher. Why stop now?”

I stared in the rearview at the four dog kennels, the net, a dozen dangling dog muzzles, log chains, and a few hundred feet of rope. In the cab of my truck there was a tranquilizer-dart gun resting near the stick shift against the cushioned seat and a .270 rifle behind the back seat. Merve’s Remington 16 gauge sat in the gun rack hanging over the back window.

I grabbed my temple with my right hand. “Jesus.”

Merve shifted and rested his left arm on the back of the bench seat so his gut was pointing at me. I looked up. The stocking hat on his head looked like a piece of river trash clinging to a hairy rock, his beard hair holding hands with the hair that jutted out from under his shirt collar. He let out a short burp, and I caught a wisp of whiskey.

“At all costs, huh?” Merve asked.

“That’s what the sheriff said.”

Merve pulled out a shell for the Remington from his hunting vest. “What’s this fall under?”

“I would say the all category.”

He shifted back, facing forward, silent and pondering the possibilities of today. I stared out the bug covered windshield with him toward the church where we dropped off Sammy.

“Sheriff never said that before,” he said.

Shadow started up again, but I was silent.

4: Ice

“Stop breathing,” I said. “You’re fogging up the windows.”

“You stop breathing,” Merve said. He took a long swig from his cup and shook the thermos. “Wait. Pull in the gas station here. My coffee is gone. I want some iced tea.”

“Merve, it’s fucking January. I can see my breath inside the truck for Christ’s sake. They’re not going to have any iced tea brewed.”

“Pull over.”

I pulled in and Merve got

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