Fiction 2018 / Spring 2018 / Volume 48

Double Knots—Raymond Arcangel

He was grounded for the entire summer, having finished the fourth grade with a U—for unsatisfactory—in penmanship. It wasn’t like he hadn’t been warned, was it? his mother asked on the last day of school. She sat at the table in their small kitchen, the stiff green paper of his report card somehow even more rigid  between her thick fingers, like something sharp, like a razor-thin weapon of strong ceramic. Over her shoulder was the screen door. Sounds of children laughing and playing down the back alley. No, he answered, he’d been warned.

“Ah, hell,” his brother said when they were alone in their bedroom. “Look at it this way—you’re gonna get, most likely, sixty, seventy summers before those sweet sweet chariots call you home. So you spend one playing with your pecker and watching television. What else do you really do anyway?”

“You’re the one who plays with his pecker, freak-o.”

His brother, who was two years older, sprang from his twin bed onto Barry’s, knocking the younger boy flat on his back and pinning his shoulders to the mattress.

“Get off me!” Barry yelled, pretending to be angry.

His brother slapped him upside the head a couple times, not hard, more for humiliation’s sake than to sting. “The important thing, young man,” he said, imitating their mother’s strident, self-satisfied cadence, “is whether you have learned your lesson. Have you? I mean, I’m gonna punish you anyway, but have you?”

Barry fought to right himself, but his brother was too strong. It wasn’t just the age difference. He’d been stronger at Barry’s age than Barry was now, and he’d be stronger in the years to come. But that was okay.

“Get off me, asshole!”

More light slaps, a quick volley on the cheeks. “Have you? Hmm? Have you?”

“Yes!” Barry screamed, laughing.

He took a few days to stare at his bedroom ceiling, sulking, kidding himself she’d take pity on him and relent. By the end of the first week he’d begun spending most of each day in their tiny, square backyard. He brought the old black and white up from the basement, setting it on the plastic lawn table and running an extension cord through the back door to the outlet by the kitchen sink. The days she worked, he’d bounce a pimple ball against the back of the house for hours at a time, enjoying the flat slap of rubber hitting the aluminum siding. When she’d come back, she’d tell him to stop, the thumping was getting on her nerves.

She let Nate and Sean, his two best friends—his only two friends, really—come over in the afternoon. But only sometimes; he wasn’t to expect this to be an everyday thing, she told him. This was supposed to be a punishment after all. The two boys quickly tired of it anyway and, after the third time in two weeks, wouldn’t return. He was pissed at them, but he understood. If allowed to run free, how many days of his summer would he have given either of them, sitting in a yard, basically doing nothing?

Probably none, he thought, moving lazily back and forth on the swing, watching his sneaks glide between where the lawn ended and the concrete walkway began. It was an old swing and slide set, for little kids, rusted now. His father set it up years ago and had just never taken it down.

Most of the houses in the neighborhood were rows, a patch of twins down by the school. The only single was Old Man Moller’s place, the property two backyards from Barry. The house was on Torresdale Avenue, the next street over. Barry mostly saw it from the rear, but he knew the front wasn’t much better. Though twice the size of the narrow shoeboxes everyone else called home, the days of the Moller house being considered a mansion were long gone. The paint and the siding itself were chipped in a hundred places. The window frames and the screen door were wooden and old, like on a farmhouse in a movie. The Moller yard dwarfed the other yards, stopping the back alley, cutting it in two. Long and wide, the yard carried straight through to Vankirk, Barry’s street, where at the edge of the property sat a dark-windowed, dilapidated garage.

Beyond Moller’s fence the alley started up again, became wider, almost as wide as a proper back driveway, paved with gravel rather than concrete. This is where the kids played jailbreak, dodgeball, kickball. From his yard Barry could hear their raucous laughter and screams, catch glimpses through Moller’s bushes. Even if not on punishment, there was no guarantee he would’ve been allowed to join in, his acceptance decided on what seemed a day-by-day basis. Still, he liked to listen, kidding himself, knowing he was kidding himself, that if not for this state of lockdown he’d have been there, not watching hopefully from the sidelines with the other geeks, but running with the best of ’em.  

Barry’s brother, though more popular and better at sports, was never down the alley anymore, having suddenly and wordlessly disavowed the neighborhood children the previous year. For some time, he had hung around exclusively with this strange girl from around the corner. Tammy. Paper white skin, dark red hair, hardly talked. She was a girl friend, not a girlfriend, the older boy insisted. They’d been inseparable until she’d moved away during the middle of the semester. Barry imagined that his brother now just roamed the streets alone.

Near the end of June, he noticed a couple in their early twenties were living on Moller’s property. From his brother he found out that the old man had moved to Florida. The young woman was his niece, the guy her husband. How his brother knew any of this, Barry had no idea. As far as he could tell, his brother talked to no one but him. Maybe he sneaked around, listening and watching at windows and in halls, like Barry did. That didn’t seem like him, though.

As for Barry, he he couldn’t help himself, at least not where Moller’s niece was concerned. He would peek from his bedroom blinds when she sunbathed. She had feathered dirty-blonde hair, her face and the tops of her shoulders covered in freckles. Her breasts were full and shapely, almost too large for her small frame, and she almost always wore either a tube top or bikini top. As she’d lie on the lawn chair, Barry would run his eyes along her body, starting at the painted toes, up her legs, along the material of her tight short-shorts, to the white plane of her stomach, and then to her bosom and the smooth skin of her neck. He was ashamed of himself, but he couldn’t stop. If he was in the basement or the living room when he’d hear that high nasal voice coming from her yard, greeting a neighbor or talking into her cordless phone, he’d practically break his neck getting to the back bedroom.

Often he’d already be in his yard when she came out into hers. Those times, it was almost too much to handle. She would smile over at him as she unfolded the lawn chair, adjusting its position according to the sunlight. Somehow he’d manage to return the smile, his ears and cheeks instantly hot. He would try to look casual as he strolled inside, increasing to a jog once he was in the kitchen. Up the steps and to the back bedroom. Looking at her from there was better. Not only could he openly stare, but the higher vantage let him see more.

Her husband looked like most of the neighborhood guys in their twenties: wiry but tough, a Magnum PI mustache, hair parted down the middle and feathered, as if refusing to acknowledge the 80’s were now well under way. When he wasn’t in denim cutoffs and a T-shirt with a beer logo or band name on it, he wore his work uniform: long-sleeved blue button-down shirt, blue canvas pants, similar to what Barry’s father wore to his job. He seemed an affable enough guy, maybe a bit loud. Big hellos for any neighbors in their yards. What’s up, little man was his standard for Barry. Barry could’ve done without the little part, but he was happy to be presumed cool enough to acknowledge. Trying not to sound like a dork, Barry would return the what’s up greeting.

They had a big old dog. Or the guy did, anyway. Barry quickly surmised the lady wanted nothing to do with it. If she were lying out and it would try to nuzzle her, she’d push it away roughly, using both her arms and legs. Once Barry heard the couple argue about it. The guy was sitting at Moller’s beat-up old picnic table, in a patch of shade, throwing a rubber toy for the dog to retrieve. About ten feet away, the woman was in her chair. The toy, a hot dog in a bun, landed alongside her. She did her usual the instant the animal got close, pushing it away with the heel of her bare foot.

“What is your problem?” her husband called to her.

“What?” the woman responded with a far away annoyance.

“What you do that for? She loves you. You don’t gotta be like that.” To the dog he added, as he patted its sides, “Momma’s being a bitch, ain’t she Shirley, huh?”

The woman sat up and looked at them, man and dog, covering her eyes against the sun.

“You know why,” she answered flatly and laid back down.

“Oh, calm down. She ain’t gonna hurt anything.”

“You don’t know that.”

Though obviously an older dog, with enough gray hairs about the snout and under the eyes that Barry could see them from his yard, it radiated the strength of a bull. It looked like a bull, sort of, with its huge muscled head, wide nostrils on a leathery nose, a torso like a small side of beef. But there was a quality about it that was downright puppy-like. Its heavy breaths and snorts were pure joy, certainly any time the man played with it and often even when alone, as it ran about the yard.

The day after he heard the couple bicker, Barry was bouncing his ball when the man and his dog came bounding out their back door, both laughing in their way. The man held a thick knotted rope about a foot long, waving it at chest level. The dog had almost made it to the garage when it arced widely and headed back. Muscles moved under its hide like reptiles just below the sand as it lunged and took the low-hanging end of the rope in its jaws. The man held on, pulling up and whipping the rope back and forth, his own muscles straining, biceps surprisingly big for such a lanky guy. The dog came off its hind legs, refusing to let go.  

“Ain’t she strong?” the man called over to him.

Barry realized he’d been staring, even laughing a bit.

“Yeah,” he answered, hiding his embarrassment. “What kind of dog is it—she?”

“She’s a good old American mutt—half German Shepherd, half Staffordshire Bull Terrier. And half probably something else. Probably Ford Bronco.”

“Her name’s Shirley, right?”

“Yup.”

“Yeah, I heard you and your wife call her sometimes.”

The man didn’t respond. Barry wasn’t sure why he’d even said it. He couldn’t recall having ever heard the woman refer to the animal by name, or speak to it at all other than get the fuck away from me. The dog had wrenched the rope away or the man had released it. It trotted down the yard, holding it proudly in its mouth like a dead rabbit. Barry and the man laughed to each other. The man ran after. The dog turned its rear to him, maneuvering away as he circled. It shook the rope violently, furthering the image of caught prey, a constant low growl that rose sharply each time the man came in for a grab. He caught an end at last and pulled up. Again the dog came up on its hind legs, head whipping side to side, ecstatic with pretend anger.

“Hey, look, I caught a marlin,” the man joked, more to himself than Barry.

“How old is she?”

“Thirteen. Had her since I was a little dude like you.”

“Does she bite?”

“Come on, Shirley-girl, come on. Um…yeah…well, I mean she would, if someone tried to hurt me or my wife. Why you want to pet her?”

“I can’t.”

“What, you allergic or something?”

“No. I can’t leave the yard. I’m on punishment.”

“Oh, man. In the summer? For how long?”

Barry looked back at his house, narrowing his eyes at the darkness behind the kitchen screen.  Most likely she was across the street on a neighbor’s front steps, gossiping with the other block moms. She hadn’t said anything about his ball against the house.

“All summer,” Barry admitted.

Shirley had finally tired of the rope, right after the man let go. She rolled around on her back. The man crouched down and rubbed her belly. Her head moved wildly like a separate living thing, her eyes wide and gleeful.

“All summer!” the man called back, Barry wincing inwardly. “That sucks.”

Barry glanced at the screen again. Anything could be in that blackness—a killer in a hockey mask, machete in hand.

“Yeah, it does,” he said with a sigh.

 

The living room was dark, the way she always kept it. He flicked on the television and plopped down on the couch. Nothing on but a Phillies game. He watched the innings slowly pass.

He enjoyed playing Wiffle Ball with the other kids, when they’d let him, but watching baseball on television, or football or basketball, was something he found hard to stay interested in. He tried. He did a good job of pretending with the other kids. But truth be told, he couldn’t have cared less if the home team won or not.

This lack, he knew, had something to do with his old man.

The other boys, their dads signed them up for Pop Warner or PAL leagues, some even offering to coach. They tossed the ball around with their sons over at Turtle Park. They gave advice on how to bat, how to throw properly. The only time the old man seemed aware he even had two sons was when they did something to anger his wife, something he’d have to deal with.

Even the way he watched sports was different from the other men. He didn’t care much for baseball, but during football season he’d never miss a Sunday Eagles game. Where the other men would get quite vocal, cheering or jeering at the screen, their sons watching and imitating, Barry’s father lay in his recliner, staring like an emotionless mute.

Barry had once tried watching a football game with him, sitting on the sofa next to the recliner. When he asked a question as to the rules, the old man sighed impatiently, his short answer as derisive as any of the neighborhood kids, sneering at him for not already knowing. Barry sat silently for a long while, humiliation hot on him like sunburn. At halftime, he mumbled something about getting a drink. His father’s response was another irritated exhale, eyes never leaving the television. Barry pulled himself from the couch and to the kitchen. He slunk back across the living room, pretending to inspect his glass of juice as he passed the recliner. As he climbed the stairs to his room, he could sense the old man relax, relieved the nuisance was leaving at last. Barry shut his bedroom door and leaned against it, the wood hard against the back of his head.

Even now, months later, the shame felt fresh and warm. He flicked off the Phillies game and stood with his hand atop the television set, remembering.

Voices were coming from upstairs.

He moved slowly to the front window. Pulling back the curtain, he saw his mother across the street, sitting on a neighbor’s front steps with a couple of the other women. All three were barefoot and wearing colored Lycra shorts and huge baggy T-shirts, their hips spread across the concrete like resting hens, a cigarette hovering before each face. Barry spread himself against the wall like a man in a shootout and started for the second floor. The talk was coming from behind his closed bedroom door. He sat when he reached the landing, legs pointing down the carpeted stairs, ready to slide to the living room if either the bedroom door or front door began to open.

“You can have fun with girls. They can be fun. But you gotta keep your wits about you.”

“Uh-huh.” Barry’s brother, that bored, slightly mocking tone he’d recently begun answering just about everything with.

“Can the attitude, junior,” their father spat back, “and listen to what the frig I’m telling you. These little chickies out here…they’ll devour you if you give ’em a chance.”

Their father rarely drank—their mother didn’t like it—but Barry had managed to see him buzzed on a couple occasions and he recognized the quality of voice. He must’ve stopped at Pearson’s up the corner, had a few drafts after his shift at the plant.

Barry’s brother sighed. The old man responded immediately with the sound that had provided so many giggles for the brothers over the years, that cross between a surprised start and an angry grumble. Barry laughed into his hand, picturing their positions. He heard his desk chair squeaking, the old wooden thing that had been too small for years. This is where his father no doubt sat, awkwardly, work-shirt rolled up at the sleeves, his face red and sweaty. His brother would be lying on the bed, having not so much as sat up when the old man came in, a Stephen King novel or comic book on his stomach.  

“You think you’re so smart, kid. Lemme tell you, you don’t know shit.”

“I’m sure I know more about this stuff than you did at my age. Probably as much as you know now.”

Barry shook with silent laughter. It seemed with every day the older boy grew exponentially more of a wiseass.  

“Yeah, right,” their dad said, a forced casualness that made Barry think of a man struggling to stay righted on a patch of ice.“You’ll probably end up the most P-whipped guy in the neighborhood—”

“Like I’m gonna live in this neighborhood when I grow up.”

“I saw the way that little redhead used to lead you around by your knob.” A laugh, strained and sad. “Buster, the lessons you got coming.”

“Dad, seriously, you’re talking about yourself. That’s all. Can’t you see that?”

The desk chair creaked sharply, answering for the momentarily stunned man.

“Who’s devoured, Dad?” Barry’s brother continued, his voice clearer, as if he’d hunched up on his elbows.“What women around here are doing any devouring? Janey across the street? With her reappearing black eye and necklace of  bruises? She’s really devouring Scott, ain’t she? Or how about Maggie Jenner’s mom down the block? Her dad ran off with the secretary at the car lot. She devouring somebody, Dad? You’re talking about yourself. You wanted to get devoured, so you did.”

“Look, you goddamn punk!” their father roared, a screech from the desk chair echoing each syllable. After a moment the old man breathed out loudly. “Steven, listen. I’m just trying to—I’m not trying to scare you. Those scumbags you mentioned—that goddamn Joe Jenner, he’s been a piece of shit since he was a kid. And that friggin’ Scotty whatever-the-fuck-his-name-is, they ain’t even married, him and that girl. They’re what, twenty, twenty-one?”

“So, he’s just raging against the inevitable, right, Dad?” Barry’s brother responded with a pitying sarcasm. “He’ll wake up one day and be gentle as a lamb, I guess, huh?”

“I knew plenty of guys when I was coming up that’d talk all this shit about how no girl was ever gonna do this or that to them, all this tough talk, and they’re all whipped as shit now. Time’ll tell, Steven. You’ll see in the end who’s been chewed to pieces and who’s picking meat out of their teeth with a goddamn pecker bone.”

The laugh cut like an airhorn.

“What?” the old man asked, angry and embarrassed.

“Jesus Christ, Dad. There’s no bone in the pecker.”

“Maybe not yours, kiddo.”

 

The man presumably at work, the woman would leave Shirley outside for hours at a time, if she wasn’t out there herself. Though another small yard separated the two properties, Barry and the old dog got in the habit of watching each other. When she saw him, she would come up on her hind legs, front paws along the fence, thick tongue out, her eyes comical and inquisitive. Barry would greet her by name, ask her how she was doing. Standing rigid center lawn, that mighty head would follow as Barry tossed his ball at the telephone wires that ran above the yards. Other times she’d run about, chasing invisible rabbits, checking to see if he was watching, performing for him. Barry would laugh and cheer her on. Get ’em, Shirley-girl. That’s it.

Summer was coming to an end. On the last day of his punishment, he was on his back in the grass. The young wife was in her chair, talking on the cordless, gossip similar to what he’d heard his whole life from his mother and the others. Did she really say that? You’re kidding! That bitch. Well, you know what you shoulda said—. Barry watched the clouds. Gigantic white ships, rushing through the sky, powered by the wind, until one by one they disappeared beyond the roof of his house. His eyes grew heavy as her voice pushed and receded, into and from his consciousness.

“Well, he’s gonna have to when the baby comes,” she was saying as he drifted off. “Yeah, well, tough shit. You know? He’s friggin’ nuts if he thinks we’re having that goddamn monster around our kid.”

                                       * *          *

The games down the other end of the alley came to a stop, like an actual league ending its season. After each school day, Barry and Sean rode their bikes through the neighborhood, or played Atari at Sean’s house. Nate had inexplicably penetrated the world of the cool kids, leaving his two old buddies behind without a goodbye hallway glance.

Barry was in his yard one day in the middle of October, attempting to fix a flat tire, when he heard a familiar breathing greeting him from behind. He laughed and turned around to see a huge head and paws hanging over Moller’s fence.

“What’s up, Shirley? How you been?”

He exited his gate. The dog pushed off, circling the yard with palpable excitement before again propping herself against the fence. Barry stopped a foot from the Moller property line, her huge dome parallel to his.

“What’s up, girl. Whaddya been up to?”

Her snout stabbed at the air, beckoning him closer. Barry lifted a hand for her to sniff and stepped forward

“I wouldn’t do that, little man.” The tone was friendly, but it startled him nonetheless. Shirley ran to her owner as he descended the back steps, his work uniform visible beneath a similarly colored jacket. “She’s a good girl, but she’s protective about our property. She might take a chomp outta ya.” He laughed warmly.

“Really? I talked to her a lot in the summer, kind of got to know her.”

“Yeah, I know. I heard you. Damn, man. Your dad really grounded you the entire summer?”

Barry almost corrected him, but didn’t. The idea of his father as the disciplinarian of the house was a misconception he found himself wanting to protect, though he couldn’t say why. Shirley stood at attention, watching them talk, her head ping-ponging.  

“You offered to let me pet her before,” Barry said, surprising himself. “Remember?”

A smile opened across the man’s face. He looked down at the dog and then over his shoulder at his house.

“Yeah, well,” he answered, full of pride. “Lately, she’s been getting…a little more protective.”

He hunkered down and Shirley jumped him, almost knocking him over, snorting gleefully as he rubbed her tan coat and playfully pushed her around. “She does like you, dude. I can tell. Wouldn’t be anything personal if she did nip you. It’s just, she’s a guard dog. And we’re who she guards, her family. It’s just instinct.”

A flat, measured voice came from the kitchen screen.

“Barry, come here, please. I want to speak to you.”

The man winced, lowering his eyes to his dog.

Barry managed not to flinch or turn immediately around. He could picture her standing there, arms crossed, clicking her teeth and stewing at his insolence.

“I gotta go, man,” Barry said, surprising himself again with the lazy annoyance of his tone. He decided not to overthink it, knowing he’d be paying for all of it soon enough.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she snarled, having pulled him into the living room. “Telling total goddamn strangers our private business?”

“Sorry,” he answered with glaring insincerity, dropping his weight onto the couch. He sounded like his brother, and it made him laugh.

“Oh, it’s funny, is it?” she spat, a figure on the loveseat across the darkened room. “How funny is two days punishment? Is that funny, mister?”

He shrugged at her shape, looking over her shoulder to where light crept through the the blinds.  It’s funny? the figure repeated. It’s funny, mister? Is it funny?

                                   * * *

Winter came fast and strong that year. The first big snowstorm, he and Sean discovered the perfect sledding hill. It was down past their school, by the train tracks that separated the residential district from the various factories along the river’s edge. The pull of the descent started deceptively slow, growing faster and faster, leveling out right before you crashed safely against the chain-link fence that kept people off the tracks. After a couple days the other kids found out about it. Barry’s mouth grew dry as he watched them walking across the field like an army, Nate among them, sleds under their arms.  But neither he nor Sean were ridiculed or driven away, like he expected they would be. A couple of the older boys even complimented them on finding such a cool spot. They got two big snows that year, and two smaller ones. Barry would’ve welcomed a new ice age.

During those months, he’d hear Shirley in her yard occasionally. Once, he went out back, into the alley, talking to her. He laughed as she snorted and jumped around in response, her paws leaving wide prints in the white grass.

The baby arrived sometime in spring. Barry happened to peer out his bedroom window one sunny, breezy afternoon to see the man standing on his lawn, gently rocking the bundle in his arms. Shirley lay close by, head up and alert, a dutiful and oddly human look on her face.

On the back steps sat the young mother. Her face was thicker than the last time he’d seen her. It suited her. Her legs, in a pair of baggy shorts that looked to be cut-off jogging pants, were fuller also, stronger-looking, pale and beautiful. With a blank expression, she watched Shirley watching her husband and child. The man called to her, laughing about something the baby had done. She answered with a smile that disappeared the instant he looked away, her gaze returning to the dog.

 

Two afternoons later, having just returned from school, Barry split his bedroom blinds with his fingers, looking down into the couple’s yard. It appeared at first to be empty, until he noticed Shirley napping by the garage. She had her rope and a couple chew toys around her front paws, as if she’d been collecting and arranging them. Later on, it would seem to Barry that the sour pang of dread had come an instant before Shirley raised her head, not after he followed her gaze.

The young mother was suddenly on her back steps, her face the deadpan from the other day. She wore a short cotton robe that hung open as she descended and marched slowly through the yard, her bare breasts visible in flashes. Her legs and feet were also bare. Her hair was mussed and she was without makeup. Left hand curled into a loose fist, she held that arm out sideways, away from her body. Shirley had stood up, tail wagging expectantly. As she reached the creature, the woman quickly scanned the surrounding yards. She bent down, still holding the one closed fist out like it were radioactive. Shirley came forward and nuzzled her, apprehensively.

“Yo, jackass.”

Barry ran to the bedroom door and opened it.

“What, man. What?” he answered, coming halfway down the steps, as if the lady would somehow hear him and realize he had been watching.

“Asshole Nate’s on the phone,” his brother said from the couch. “You seriously didn’t hear me call your name like four friggin’ times?”

“If I’d heard you, I would’ve answered, shithead,” Barry said as he crossed the living room to the loveseat, where the receiver waited.

Typical Nate baloney, bending his ear for ten minutes about some slight interaction he’d just had with this older girl he had a crush on. Oh, so we’re best buds again? Barry wanted to say. He wasn’t sure what he’d just seen, but as he listened, throwing in an uh-huh and oh my god when the kid paused to swallow, he told himself it had to have been nothing. When he was finally able to extricate himself and return to his bedroom, the lady was no longer outside. Shirley lay peacefully on the lawn. He watched her for a couple minutes, until his eyes grew heavy and he flopped down on the bed.

He awoke to a sound like someone stripping wood from a wall. Shirley was throwing herself around her yard, hacking, trying to push something from her throat. With each step, her legs pounded the ground like a dinosaur, head darting forward violently.

Barry ran downstairs, through his house and out into the alley. The lady had shut the back door and drawn the blinds. Shirley’s coughs were maddeningly loud at this closer proximity. Spit shot from her nostrils. He repeated her name gently as he  climbed the fence into her yard. She began to move toward him, brontosaurus steps, then halted and turned her rear to him.

“Lady, your dog is choking to death,” Barry screamed as he banged on the back door and rapped at the windows. He knew she was in there, he could feel it. She would say later that she’d been asleep, or in the shower…or taking care of the baby…something…but she was in there, he was sure of it. He ran his eyes desperately along the backs of the surrounding houses. Spring day or not, it looked like a ghost down.“Somebody help!” he called, and then to the dog, soothingly, “It’s okay, Shirley, we’re gonna get you some help.” She had stopped walking around, legs fixed in one spot but muscles tensing, as if trying to pull her paws from quicksand. The horrible hacking continued and her head still attacked the air.  

He heard his name and looked up to see his brother standing in the alley.

“What is happening? I could hear you from the living room.”

“Shirley’s choking to death.”

“Don’t cry, dude. She seems alright. She’ll cough it up. You better get outta their yard before Mom gets home.”

He hadn’t realized he was crying, but once mentioned he felt the tears streaming down his face.

“She’s not okay, idiot! She’s dying.” He kicked the back door. “She’s in there, I know it. God, I wish I knew where that guy was!”

“He’s probably at work.”

“No shit, genius. Like I know where that is.”

“He works right at the mechanic’s on Hellerman—genius.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ve seen him on the lot a hundred times.”

Barry told Shirley one more time that everything would be fine. He bolted through the couple’s yard and out the front gate onto Torresdale Avenue. Hellerman was the next cross street, half a block down; the auto shop was on the far corner.

He pumped his legs as fast as he could, cursing himself for being one of the slowest runners in the neighborhood. A quarter block away, he saw the open garage doors of the shop, a couple guys in blue outfits working on a shiny black El Camino. He crossed Hellerman without looking, a teenager on a ten-speed almost plowing into him.

“Look where you’re going, asshole,” the older boy yelled.

As Barry crossed the lot, a third man in blue, a lanky Hispanic guy barely out of his teens, exited the small reception building connected to the garage.

“What’s the matter, kid?” he asked. “The Russians invade?”

Shirley’s owner lifted his head from beneath the hood of the El Camino, his laugh turning to puzzlement as he took in the frantic boy.

“What’s up, little man?”

“Mister,” Barry said, trying to catch his breath. “Shirley’s choking on something. You gotta come quick.”

They jumped into a primered Cutlass Supreme, the Hispanic guy in the passenger seat, Barry sliding in back. The man peeled out, screeching down Torresdale Ave, a wide U-turn when he reached the house. He threw the car into park and ran into the yard, the gate slamming sharply against the fence.                                                                                                                                                      Barry walked up to the property slowly, everything sharp and fuzzy at the same time, like when his grandpop had let him drink a big mug of strong coffee. The man was already carrying Shirley out, saying her name, telling her to hold on, girl, yelling over his shoulder for his wife. Jen! Jennifer! The Hispanic guy bent the car seat forward and the man crouched to put the dog in back, but her huge muscled body slid from his arms like a rolled carpet, landing half on the car floor. He gave a pained, frustrated whimper and righted her, spreading her out on the backseat. He hopped in the car and took off for the animal hospital up on Frankford, about eight blocks away, leaving his coworker and Barry standing on the pavement.

“What the hell happened?” the Hispanic man asked.

Barry looked at the house, the chipped white paint on the wooden siding, the long front porch. A curtain moved in one of the front windows and was still again.

“I don’t know,” he answered.

 

The following day, Mrs. Hannigan, his next door neighbor, informed his mother that he’d been in the  couple’s yard. Apparently the old widow had been peeking out her window, though she offered no assistance. As his mother berated him over dinner, he was too deflated for defense. If she’d pushed back from the table, announced she was going to cut his throat, and started for the kitchen drawers for one of the big knives, he doubted he’d have been able to raise his hands.

“Mom, what did you want him to do?” his brother asked harshly. “Stand there and watch the dog die?”

“Watch your goddamn mouth,” their father shouted through a mouthful of ground beef and rice. Oh,of course not.” She shook her head slowly, as if to indicate what a shame it was. “But he could have just gone directly to the man’s work…without entering their yard.”

“Yeah, cuz people always think straight in times of tragedy,” his brother answered sarcastically.

The old man grumbled something incomprehensible, bits of food shooting from his face. He met his wife’s eyes, saw the quiet reprimand. He picked up his napkin and began wiping the corners of his mouth. The family sat in silence until he swallowed.

“Watch how you talk to your mother,” he said at last, quietly.

She gave a small nod, petting him quickly with her eyes.

“Sad as it is,” she continued, without a trace of sadness, “it really is probably a blessing in disguise.” She looked at her hands, watching herself fold her napkin. “I mean, newborn and all. One of them had to go. That dog would’ve chewed that baby up like a chew toy.”

“She would not have,” Barry mumbled.

“Like you’re a dog expert, Mom,” his brother laughed. “That dog wouldn’t’ve done a thing except protect what she saw as her family, plain and simple.”

Their mother touched her husband’s hand, regally, as if sparing the boy the man’s response. Though she tried to hide it, she was shaken by the persistent retorts. Barry almost felt sorry for her. It had just happened so fast, the change, the way her oldest child now constantly challenged her. She’d ruled them all for years. And then, as if from one day to the next, the boy had begun to openly and relentlessly take her on.

“Like you’re a dog expert?” she volleyed, adding a laugh that struggled for confidence. “Oh, wait, I forgot—you’re an expert on everything.”

Other than the yellow din of lamps behind the curtains, and the occasional blue flicker of a television, Barry saw no activity at the Moller house for the next week. As he and his brother were doing their homework at the kitchen table one afternoon, there was a knock at the front door.  

“It’s that guy from out back,” his brother said, retaking his seat. “He wants to talk to you.”

Barry headed for the front door as if pulled on a conveyor belt. Shirley’s owner stood at the bottom of the three concrete steps, dressed in his blue work uniform. Barry shut the door behind him, remaining on the top step. The guy was tall, but looking down at him he seemed like a kid dressed for a school play in grownup clothes and a fake mustache.

“Hi,” Barry said.

“Hey there, buddy,” the man answered. He flashed that warm, wide smile, but his eyes were sad. “I just wanted to thank you…for trying anyway.”

“No problem. I just wished we could’ve done something in time,” Barry answered, his words sounding stupid in his ears.

“Yeah, well—” The guy lowered his head and kicked the toe of his boot lightly against the bottom step. “She actually did regain consciousness. So, we had that time together, at least.”

“I thought she was dead when you put her in the car,” Barry responded, immediately regretting his crassness. It was true, though: Shirley had looked as lifeless as a stuffed animal last he saw of her.

“Oh, dude,” the man sighed. “It was so weird. I thought she was definitely gone, but I was still freaking, trying to get her there as fast as I could, you know? This older man, just some guy coming out of the video shop next door to the hospital, he saw me trying to get her out of the back seat and he came and helped me.” He laughed, his eyes filling up. “She started growling as he was helping me carry her in. He looked like he was gonna shit. He kept carrying her, though. And I just kept telling her everything was gonna be okay, just like I had been the whole ride up when I thought she was already dead.” He wiped his cheeks with his shirtsleeve. “They took her right away, but it was too late.”

For the first time, Barry noticed an iron-on patch on the man’s shirt. Mark, it read.

“She wasn’t choking any more, when she woke up?” he asked, delicately.

“No. The lady doctor checked all her pipes and airways and everything. There was no blockage. They don’t know what it was. But she was just totally listless, her heartbeat faint. And she was bleeding rectally.”

His face contorted violently, seconds away, it seemed, from full-on bawling. Barry prayed it wouldn’t happen. He wanted so much to say what he knew. Mark wouldn’t believe it, he was sure. Look, man, I think I saw your wife poison her or something. She had something in her hand—tears or not, he’d probably curse him out, storm off down the block. And what had Barry seen anyway, really? A closed fist?

Mark brightened suddenly, tears still silently running down his face. “Her cute little rump. I stood beside the table, just sorta stroking her. You could tell she was fading. Even if I hadn’t taken the car, there’d’ve been no time for Jen to make it up. So I said goodbye for her.”

Barry closed his eyes and took a breath, his heart pounding.

“Do they think she might’ve been poisoned?” he asked.

“Dude, they don’t know what it was. The doc, she said it was just one of them freak things, you know?”

“Yeah, but did they rule out some kind of poison?” His tone sounded like what it was: pushing, pushing him to think. Barry could hardly believe it was his own voice saying it.

Mark stared up at him, a pained, boyish expression, like a kid on the spot, unable to solve the math problem at the blackboard.

“I…I think—you know, she said it was just one of those things.”

“Yeah,” Barry sighed.

“She’d have been a good playmate for Ashley,” Mark continued after an awkward moment. He smiled and looked to the sky. “She loved her soon as we brought her home from the hospital. You could tell. And Ashley woulda loved her back, that I know.”

Ashley. Mark and Jen and Baby Ashley. So long, Shirley-girl.

His parents’ old Ford Granada turned the corner. He and Mark watched it roll down the narrow block. As it passed, Mark waved with his typical friendliness. The old man looked at them both like strangers, strangers he was angry with even if he wasn’t sure why. His mother, in the passenger seat, looked from Mark to him and back again, biting her lip as if holding in a laugh, widening her eyes in some deranged, lascivious implication too big for Barry to think about right then. He shook his head, physically pushing out the image. The brake lights lit a quarter of a block down at a ridiculously small parking space.

“I don’t think he’s gonna fit,” Mark said, wincing in apology.

The old man tried twice, tapping the bumpers of both the car in front and the one behind him, before  pulling away to search for another spot. They watched the Granada disappear at the end of the street.

“Well, I better get home.”

Mark shot up a step and offered his hand. Barry came down a step, doing his best to give a man’s shake. Not a limp fish, his grandfather used to tell him, but don’t squeeze like you got something to prove.

“Thanks again, little dude.”

“No problem. I just really wish I could’ve helped more.”

“Believe me. You did.”

“They’re home,” Barry called into the kitchen as he climbed the stairs to his bedroom. “Parking the car now.”

“Oh, friggin’ lovely,” his brother answered.

Barry waited a minute before splitting the blinds. Jen was standing in the shade, baby in her arms. Mark was just coming through the gate, looking proudly at his family. The young mother smiled at her husband. She lowered her face to the child. Barry couldn’t hear her, but he knew what she was saying. Look, Ashley. Daddy’s home.

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