With a squeal of tires the dark sedan narrowly missed hitting him, but he barely noticed.
Likewise, the man, trailing the leash behind him, took no notice of the semi that roared past. The wind of its passing stirred the wisps of yellowed gray hair that still clung to his scalp.
His eyes, squeezed nearly shut against the daggers of the newly rising sun, were moist. He mumbled, although the throb of the passing commuters drowned him out. It didn’t matter. The man dragging the empty rhinestone- studded collar was not shuffling across the busy highway toward the median where the broken body of a small black dog lay. With every step it was as though a million tiny slivers stabbed into his joints, but he didn’t feel it, for the man was 13 years old, and was walking across a ballfield, on his way home at the end of a game.
“Dang! Your old man’s sure gonna be sore, huh?” The skinny kid walking alongside was a good head shorter than Pete.
“Who cares about him? Who cares about anyone? Leave it alone, Duggan!” Pete lengthened his stride and angrily stomped ahead of his friend. His arms, the hands too large, swung awkwardly with his loping gait. He hated his arms, all scrawny and scarecrowish. And weak. Too weak to fend off the blows his old man was gonna deal him when he found out Pete had struck out and lost the ball game. Didn’t matter if he’d a won the darn game. Old man would’ve found a reason to whup him. Always did.
No, what really hurt was that Cindy’d been at the game. Cindy. She reminded him of cotton candy, all pink and sweet and soft. She’d been there, and she’d seen him swing and stumble and miss the darn ball. She’d turned away, but not before he saw the smirk on her pretty face.
He burned, just thinking about it. But time blurred, and moved on, to a different time in his life.
Today was his birthday. Had he been born into a different family perhaps there would have been a car decked out with a red ribbon waiting outside. Or, perhaps, Pop would have taken him downtown to take the test and get his license. At the very least, there might have been a cake, and maybe a present. But he had been born into this family and, as he stared at the wizened apple in his hand — his breakfast — he reflected that maybe today his Pop would do him a favor and have a stroke. He shook his head. Nah. Things like that only happen in the fairy stories.
“You deaf boy? I said your teacher done called me again yesterday. She said you been daydreamin’ too much. That true boy?” Pop was staring at him now, the pouches beneath his left eye twitching slightly.
“You lyin’ to me again, boy?” The boy watched with a dull fascination as the pouch spasmed as the older man’s voice rose on that last word.
“Don’t matter none. You ain’t goin’ to school today. Hell, you ain’t goin’ back to school no more atall. Time you started in the business.”
“Pop! No! I got … my friends’re …”
“Shut up, boy. You don’t wanna be back talkin’ me none.” Pop’s voice was very quiet, almost silky now. Dangerous. The bleary eyes took on a glint. Pete knew that look, and he swallowed.
Damn! He’d never got up the courage to tell his Pop that he’d signed up for the school production and landed the lead role. Pop would a whupped him sure, called him “sissy boy” and locked him away, most likely forever. But it weren’t fair! Pete finally found something that he could do without messing up totally. And he’d finally found himself a girl. And now …
Not for the first time, Pete thought about leaving. He could prob’ly make it better on his own. He for damn sure didn’t want to spend the rest of his days sweating in that mill, under the whiskey-hazed angry eyes of his Pop.
“Well? What you waitin’ for, boy? You’re a man now, act like one!” Pop was waiting by the back door. He was wearing his jacket. Pete silently said goodbye to his dreams and followed his pop out the door. Happy birthday, he thought.
The blare of a horn startled the old man. He looked around, then down. He found himself in the middle of a street, standing there, while cars whizzed past all around him. How long had he been standing there? What was he doing? Squinting his eyes, he looked across toward the median and he remembered. He resumed his journey. Time began to blur again.
“By all that’s holy, son, get the hell outta here!”
The twenty year old blinked, and saw the smudged face of the mill foreman just inches from his own. He coughed. His eyes stung something fierce.
“He’s not here, son! He prob’ly got out already. Come on!” And the foreman tugged Pete’s shirt, pulling him to his feet. Together they made their way out through the thick smoke toward fresh air, where the fire trucks were just arriving.
Pete moved in a daze, from one knot of people to the next, but his Pop was nowhere to be seen. The young man turned to look back at the burning mill, in time to see the roof cave in in a burst of sparks and smoke.
“POP!” He screamed. His throat was raw. He started to run toward the burning building but strong hands held him back.
“Pop!” He struggled, and the urge to weep overcame him.
“It’s okay, son.” Pete heard the foreman’s gentle voice in his ear. “It’s okay.”
“You don’t understand!” Pete’s tear streaked face was lit by the embers of the burning building. “It’s all my fault!”
“No, son! It’s a goddam fire! One a the day-crew tossed a ciggie into the warehouse. You had nothin’ to do with it. How could that be your fault?”
But it is, Pete thought, his eyes still fixed on the glowing building. He was supposed to take care of the old man, make sure he got his medicine. Make sure he didn’t fall asleep. Pete had forgotten to give Pop his pills at noon. And now Pop was prob’ly dead. Pete bent down now, the burden of responsibility was too much. And time went on.
“Babe, no! You don’t understand! I didn’t mean it. It won’t happen again!” Pete propped the phone receiver into the crook of his neck and cracked his knuckles while he listened to her response. After a few moments, he started again, “Please, baby. Please.” There was silence on his part again as he listened, her voice a tinny drone on the other end of the phone line. He sighed. He was getting too old for this. Here he was, forty-four years old, three failed marriages. He had to make this one work! “I promise, I won’t touch another drop. It was the booze, baby. You know I love you. You know I’d never really hurt you or Charlie if I was in my right mind.”
Pete picked at the scab on his arm as he listened. “Sure baby. You’ll be so glad. I’ll make you and Charlie so happy. You’ll see. I promise. Never again.” Pete swore to himself as he hung up the phone. Damn, that was close. Lucinda was the best thing that had ever happened to him, and he didn’t want to risk losing her.
He didn’t know what had gotten into him. He’d had a few with the boys, sure, he always went out after a hard day on the site. Framing was hard work, man’s work, and a man had to have a cool drink at the end of a long hot day to help him get things back into perspective. Must’ve been the comment Skeeter made that did it. Yeah. Skeeter, always goin’ on about his women. He’d kinda smirked that goddam know-it-all smirk of his when Pete said his Lucinda’d always been faithful. Then ol’ Skeeter kinda winked and said “Welllll,” in that drawn out “I know something you don’t know” way of his. Then Skeeter’d said “you never know ’bout them Spanish ladies. All sex, and wanting. Takes a real man to keep ’em satisfied.”
It all went kind of dark after that. All he knows is that, next thing a cop is whapping him upside the head and shoving him into a squad car, there’s lights flashing, kid crying somewhere, and more neighbors standing on their front lawns ‘n have any business standin’ there.
Cop was telling him he’d been pounding on his beloved Lucinda. And little Charlie, his precious Charlie, had tried to pull him off of his mommy. Pete knew the cop was lying with what he said next ’cause the cop told him he’d a thrown little Charlie clear ‘cross the room. That never woulda happened, he knew. He just worshipped that little kid. Not like his Pop had treated him, you know. His Pop was rough. Pete’d never hurt Charlie. Pete’d never hurt Lucinda. It was the whiskey’d done it.
He stood, staring at the phone for a few more minutes. Then the seargent told him to move along and get back into the cell. He’d be seeing the judge in a few hours. With any luck, Lucinda’d be there and everything would get squared away. With any luck.
He stumbled as his foot touched the curb of the median and the old man caught himself before he fell. There she was, lying like a broken doll at his feet. The small black dog was all he had left in this crappy life. The one creature who loved him without demanding much of anything in return. The one creature who never expected him to be something he wasn’t. The one creature who never hurt him, never caused him to want to hurt. And she was dead, a broken bit of trash lying by the side of a highway. Why did death touch his life, but refused to touch him?
The cruel story teller in his mind refused to answer, but instead fed him another tarnished snapshot of his life.
“Custody of the minor, Charles Peter Stadler, is hereby awarded solely to the plaintiff, Lucinda Cecilia Stadler. The defendant, Peter ‘No Middle Name’ Stadler, is forbidden any contact with the minor or the plaintiff. Any attempt to contact either party will result in a misdemeanor charge and a mandatory jail sentence of 6 months and a possible fine of up to $20,000.”
The gavel slammed down, a punctuation mark on Pete’s life. Lucinda glared at him triumphantly, before turning away and talking animatedly with her lawyer.
A black rage overtook him, and he shrugged off the consoling clasp his attorney placed on his shoulder. The forty-six year old roofing contractor stalked out of the courtroom. He needed a beer and a whore, in that order. The beer helped him focus the rage. The rage helped him get the hard on. The whore knew what to do with that, and usually, if you paid ’em enough, didn’t mind the slaps and punches that came with it. That’s what whores were for.
The sequences came faster now.
“Sorry, Pete. You know how it is. Times are tough for companies, too. We gotta trim down somewhere. Besides, a guy your age should be retiring, enjoying the good life, settling down with the little woman, maybe doing a little travelling.”
The voice droned on, but all Pete could see was the envelope with his final paycheck in it. A paycheck that would be insufficient to cover his next rent payment. He snorted. Settle down with the little woman! There hadn’t been a little woman in 15 years! Not since Lucinda’d left him. He wondered now, as he always did, what Charlie was doing. Charlie. He’d be 19 by now. Maybe he was a Broadway actor. Maybe he was going to college! Maybe …
Pete abrubtly turned and walked out of Mr. Pembroke’s office, leaving before the urge to smash his fist into Pembroke’s pockmarked face overcame his self control.
“You! Asshole! Move it! We don’t want scum like you hanging around here!”
Pete looked out from under the piece of cardboard that did a poor job of keeping the cold out of his aging bones and saw the cop coming toward him. He groaned, swung his feet down off of the bench, grabbed his tattered duffle, and walked down the street. He passed a thin, blue-veined hand over his face, feeling the stubble on his chin. He’d have to check into one a them homeless shelters soon, so’s he could get a shower and a shave. Only problem with them places was they made you look for work. At seventy, he was too old, too tired for work. He’d rather just hope for a few kind strangers to hand him a few bucks every now and then. That’s all he needed. That and a good belt of whiskey every now and then to warm his bones.
A sharp yelp broke into his thoughts. He looked up, and saw a tiny black dog, a baby, really, stumbling down the sidewalk toward him. Behind the pup, a scabby little boy was tossing stones at the puppy. The pup had yelped when one of the stones found its mark.
“Here now! You, boy! Stop that!”
“Fuck off, asshole!” But the boy turned away anyway. No doubt in search of a bug to pull apart, thought Pete grimly. Or a girl to rape.
The puppy cringed away from the old man when Pete reached down to see what hurt it had. “Shhhhh, tsk tsk tsk. ‘Sokay little feller. ‘Sokay. ‘M not gonna hurtcha, you’ll see. ‘Sokay, shhhhhh.” With this singsong mixture of soothing and coaxing, Pete scooped the tiny dog up. It looked like a cocker spaniel mix of some sort. Something about the dark soulful eyes, and the glossy black fur reminded Pete of a person he had loved. A woman he had loved and lost through his own drunken stupidity. “Lucinda. I’ll call you Lucinda. Shhhh, ‘sokay.” The puppy was whimpering and quivering now. Pete’s eyes crinkled with a smile as the baby dog tentatively licked his hand.
Tucking the puppy under his arm, Pete made his way to the homeless shelter. There was a slight spring to his step, now. I’m going to have to see about one a them jobs, he was thinking. Gotta feed this little lady something. She can’t live on a shot and a few crumbs like this old body can. Need a shave first, though. Shave and a shower.
The tears spilled out of his eyes freely as the seventy-three year old man sat down next to the still form. His hand reached out to ruffle the silky black fur.
“Lucinda.” It was barely a whisper. “My poor little Lucinda. Why did you pull away from me? Why didn’t you come back when I called you? Ah, Lucinda.”
He pulled the limp little body to his chest and wept into the fur.
He’d just gotten home from his shift at the burger place and had taken the dog for their customary walk. Lucinda loved those walks about as much as he did. She’d bounce along ahead of him, tugging at the leash, then dance playfully back to him and get all tangled up in his feet. He would laugh at her clowning, and she would grin up at him, tongue lolling out to one side. Sometimes they’d go down by the park, and he’d take her off her leash and toss a ball for her. Sometimes they’d wander by the pond, and she could bark at the geese that floated disdainfully past. Today, their destination had been the playground, where a group of small children would gather, waiting to play with Lucinda, and feed her treats that they saved up special for her.
But something went wrong. Instead of playfully bounding in front of him, Lucinda’d suddenly gone stiff, and growly. Then she pulled at the leash, hard like. He clucked at her and gave the leash a short tug, but Lucinda backed up, and ducked her head and managed to get free of the sparkly collar. He’d never had the heart to pull that collar too tight around her pretty throat. He always thought it’d hurt her. And so she slipped free and dashed off across the grass and into the traffic of the nearby highway.
And now she was dead. And it was all his fault, as usual.
Pete stood up, then, still clutching the dog to his breast. He was tired. He’d lived too long, and life had been shitty every step of the way. It was over now. It was time to rest. He looked to his left and saw a large panel truck speeding toward him. He bided his time and …
… was there movement from the small bundle in his arms?
The truck went racing past, nearly knocking him off his feet. He sat down again, and gently laid the precious bundle across his lap. He placed his trembling hands on Lucinda’s side.
There was the faintest flutter of movement. Wasn’t there?
Carefully, he picked her up and brought her to his face. He paused a moment, smelling her furry doggy smell, and then tilted his head and pressed his ear against her ribs. As he did so, the dog squirmed slightly, and whimpered. With awe, Pete buried his face into her neck and whispered, “Shhhhh, shhh. ‘Sokay. You’ll be okay now my love. Shhhhhh, shhh. ‘Sokay.”
Silently damning those tarnished snapshots of his life, Pete carefully made his way back across the highway, and went home.